In a victory for open records, the California Supreme Court held Thursday that citations for violation of public health in nursing homes are public records.
The unanimous ruling orders the Department of Public Health (DPH) to stop redacting the reasons for citations and limit its non-disclosures to confidential patient names or identifying information.
The decision will give the Center for Investigative Reporting access to the details of specific citations it sought in a 2011 investigation of mistreatment of the mentally ill and developmentally disabled people at state-owned long-term health care facilities.
In one instance cited by the court, the DPH blacked out two full pages explaining details of a citation against the Sonoma Development Center. The center obtained the information from a source that describes an incident in which “one-third of the patients at the Sonoma unit sustained injuries consistent with being unnecessarily tasered.”
The citation described the injuries sustained by some patients who had limited or no ability to communicate verbally, Justice Goodwin Liu wrote for the court.
The DPH had withheld that and other information it considered confidential “in the course of providing services” to the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.
In another case a patient died as a direct result of the facility’s offense, which was listed as an “AA” offense, but the details were withheld.
The request was made in 2011 as part of a Public Records Act request for copies of all citations since 2002.
DPH also told the center it only kept records of citations four years. It did provide 55 citations covering 2007 to 2011 but with “aggressively redacted” sections.
The high court held the Long-Term Care Act of 1973 set out a system of citation and included details spelling out what information is public and what may be withheld.
The changes in 1973 were intended to allow consumers access to more information about the quality of nursing homes and more flexibility in citing facilities for violations of state or federal standards.
Prior to enactment of the law records were centrally held in Sacramento and nearly inaccessible to the public.
“The Long-Term Care Act states not only that DPH citations are public records, but that ‘AA’ and ‘A’ citations must be publicly posted at the facility in question,” Lui wrote. The AA and A citations are those that result in death.
The court rejected DPH’s argument that the 1973 Act and an earlier, less open law, could be harmonized and read to authorize extensive redaction.
The 1973 law supercedes the earlier law, which treated all information about the care of the mentally ill as confidential, the court said.
Case: State Dept of Public Health v. Sup Ct. of Sacramento, No. S214679