Privacy laws need scrutinized

I really need to stop watching the news regarding the Virginia Tech shootings. Since I can't, I'll offer some commentary on what I watched this evening on the cable news shows and what I read in some of the online news articles with reference to privacy laws and medical records.

What is the role of the university if a student is diagnosed with a mental illness? In this article from today's New York Times, it states what we already know - That they are bound by the same federal laws that pretty much everyone else has to follow.

For the most part, universities cannot tell parents about their children’s problems without the student’s consent. They cannot release any information in a student’s medical record without consent. And they cannot put students on involuntary medical leave, just because they develop a serious mental illness.
The article goes on to say that universities have quite a problem here in trying to navigate through these privacy laws.
Universities can find themselves in a double bind. On the one hand, they may be liable if they fail to prevent a suicide or murder. After the death in 2000 of Elizabeth H. Shin, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who had written several suicide notes and used the university counseling service before setting herself on fire, the Massachusetts Superior Court allowed her parents, who had not been told of her deterioration, to sue administrators for $27.7 million. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount.

On the other hand, universities may be held liable if they do take action to remove a potentially suicidal student. In August, the City University of New York agreed to pay $65,000 to a student who sued after being barred from her dormitory room at Hunter College because she was hospitalized after a suicide attempt.

What is the role of government if a citizen is diagnosed with a mental illness and would like to purchase a firearm? There has been a lot talked about and written about how easy it was for Cho to purchase a gun in Virginia. In this article from the Associated Press, they talk with the gun store owner and his impressions of Cho during the transaction.
Roanoke Firearms owner John Markell said his shop sold the Glock to Cho in March. The serial number had been scratched off, but federal agents traced it to the store using a receipt found in Cho's backpack.

"It was a very unremarkable sale," said Markell, who did not handle the sale personally. "He was a nice, clean-cut college kid. We won't sell a gun if we have any idea at all that a purchase is suspicious."

Markell said it's not unusual for college students to make purchases at his shop as long as they are old enough. Cho held a green card, meaning he was a legal, permanent resident, according to federal officials. That meant he was eligible to buy a handgun unless he had been convicted of a felony.

It has been suggested in the media that if Cho's medical records, specifically his mental illness diagnosis, was somehow made available as part of the "background check," then, possibly, he would not have been able to purchase a gun at this place. I do realize that possibly no law could have prevented this kid from getting his gun.

However, this brings up an interesting point about privacy laws. Should certain medical diagnoses be made available in a law enforcement database? If so, which diagnoses? Just mental illness diagnoses? Who decides which medical information is placed into a database like this? Would that mean that if I am pulled over for speeding that my medical record would be accessed on a police cruiser computer?

These two articles bring in some new angles to the personal privacy verses public safety debate. Where is the line drawn between the two? Who decides where the line is drawn? What are the consequences if it goes too far one way or the other. I apologize for bringing up more questions, but I think the privacy laws in this country need to be placed under a microscope and analyzed. It is long overdue....

Update: Uh oh, this post got picked up this morning by RealClearPolitics.Com and by the FoxNews.Com Buzztracker - because of my quotes from the NYT story. Yeesh! Look out! I'm not a political commentator, just a doc! Oh well....

Update 4/24/07: There's now information that he should NOT have been sold a gun because he was seen as a danger to himself and others. But, the information was never entered into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Read more in this story.