Connecticut Supreme Court rejects police bid to keep a patient’s cause of death secret

The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that police reports about deaths in public hospitals cannot be kept confidential.

The four-justice majority opinion cited public right to know, and that despite the potential for harm from publicly releasing patient information, they “must also acknowledge the unfortunate and undeniable reality that governmental secrecy can be used to conceal governmental abuse, corruption, and neglect.” They did, however, agree that the patient’s name did not have to be disclosed.

The state attorney general’s office argued the report was protected under patient-doctor privilege and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

The report regards an initially unidentified patient at Whiting Forensic Hospital, Connecticut’s maximum-security psychiatric hospital for those acquitted of crimes by reason of insanity. The patient reportedly choked to death on food while restrained by staff members in 2016, and was described by the hospital as caused by “a medical event.”

The subsequent months also saw the hospital embroiled in an unrelated patient abuse scandal, which led to the arrests of ten employees, the firing of nearly three dozen more and a $9 million settlement.

Hartford Courant reporter Josh Kovner originally requested the police report in 2017 from the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS). When the request was rejected, the Courant appealed to the Freedom of Information Commission, which ruled that the report be disclosed in full. The DMHAS appealed to the Superior Court, and later to the state Supreme Court.

Investigations by the Courant in 2019 eventually identified the patient as 25-year-old Andrew Vermiglio of North Haven, and came across records that staff did not respond to Vermiglio’s airway obstruction for 2 ½ minutes, only releasing him so life-saving measures could be performed when ordered by a nurse.

Two dissenting justices agreed that the report should remain confidential, while Chief Justice Richard Robinson suggested in a partial dissent that the report should be released, but with more information – such as the patient’s diagnosis and identifying information of other patients referenced in the report – made confidential.

The DMHAS stated Tuesday that it will make the changes required by the court decision.

(Photo courtesy of the Hartford Courant)


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