HHSC must release names of nursing homes with virus cases, says Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Health and Human Services Commission should release the names of nursing homes affected by COVID-19, and the agency’s refusal to provide that information to the public has no basis in the law, according to a letter from the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas sent to HHSC on Tuesday.

FOIFT, a nonprofit dedicated to the First Amendment and ensuring public meeting and record laws are followed, said HHSC has erroneously cited federal and state privacy laws that should not provide grounds for suppressing the names of nursing homes that have reported positive cases of the virus to the state’s health department.

After months of delay, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission released specific numbers and locations of COVID-19 cases in Texas’ nursing homes and assisted living facilities on July 27. KXAN continues to track other states that are making that information available to the public. This map is not comprehensive and may not include every state that has disclosed specific nursing homes with COVID-19. KXAN will be updating the map regularly, as new information becomes available.

“State and federal law protecting personal health information is not an issue here. We are not asking for personal health information. We are simply asking for where are the outbreaks of COVID-19, and the public has a right to know,” said Kelley Shannon, FOIFT’s executive director. “Texans need to watch out for their loved ones in these nursing facilities. They might be contemplating having to move a loved one into a nursing facility. But the bottom line is: it is not up to the government to decide what information is best for us to know and not know.”

FOIFT, along with numerous media organizations including KXAN, has requested the names of nursing homes with cases of COVID-19. HHSC has repeatedly stated it is barred by law from releasing that level of information.

HHSC’s refusal to release the names of specific nursing homes comes amid an unprecedented national health crisis caused by COVID-19, which is most dangerous to the elderly and people with existing medical conditions. HHSC has released broad numbers showing the cumulative totals of nursing homes and assisted living facilities with positive COVID-19 cases, and that data shows senior facilities have been hard hit by the virus. Nearly a quarter of Texas’ 1,220 nursing facilities have reported at least one case among staff or residents, including 231 deaths. Eighty five of the state’s 2,004 assisted living facilities have reported a case, with 59 deaths at those facilities, according to HHSC.

KXAN has independently verified over a dozen Austin-area senior facilities with cases of COVID-19, after receiving tips from concerned viewers. You can view a map of those facilities, and all KXAN’s COVID-19 and nursing home related reporting, here.

In response to the FOIFT letter, HHSC spokesperson Christine Mann said, “we are working to release as much information as we are legally permitted to share publicly, in compliance with state and federal law. As part of this process, HHSC is requesting a ruling from the Texas Attorney General’s Office related to media requests for data on confirmed COVID-19 cases in HHSC-regulated facilities, identified by facility.”

FOIFT said HHSC has cited provisions in the Texas Health and Safety Code that “have no relevance to whether the information must be disclosed under TPIA.”

“Aside from the lack of legal authority for HHSC’s refusal to release the requested information, HHSC must not pretend that the public cannot be trusted to govern itself when provided with accurate highly relevant information crucially important to the real time protection of the health of Texas citizens and their families and to the real time public oversight of the proper and effective operation of our governmental bodies. Time is of the essence,” according to FOIFT’s letter.

More than half the states nationwide, at least 28 as of June 8, have released lists of specific nursing homes with cases of the virus. The KXAN map below shows those states, and it will be updated as new information becomes available.

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