From The Cincinnati Enquirer Gov. John Kasich's budget would give counties a new way to review drug overdose deaths, but many components of those investigations into Ohio's drug epidemic could be shielded from public view.
Ohio leads the nation in opioid overdose deaths. More than 3,000 people died in 2015 because of fatal drug overdoses – a number that has increased each year since 2009, according to state health department records.
To better understand these deaths, Kasich has proposed allowing counties to create drug overdose fatality review committees. These committees would dig into the details of each overdose death in the county and maintain a database, which would include victims' demographic information, where the deaths occurred and what factors contributed to the overdoses. Each year, the committees would submit a report to the Ohio Department of Health, summarizing the data.
Absent that annual report, the public would have little access to those committees' findings on overdose deaths in their communities. Under Kasich's proposal, their meetings would be closed to the public. Any records they would review, from medical histories to coroners' reports, would be shielded from public disclosure.
The problem: Some of those records are already public – and would continue to be if they are requested from other sources. Police reports, autopsy records and death certificates are all available for public review. Other records the group would review, such as a victim's private medical records, are not open to the public.
So why shield from the public all the documents the committee is reviewing?
Advocates for access to public records fear Kasich's plan cuts off access to important information about Ohio's drug epidemic. Ohio Department of Health officials say the exclusion is necessary to protect private health records, which are already shielded from state public records' laws. Allowing people to see what public documents the committee is reviewing might reveal the identity of the people whose deaths the group is investigating, Ohio Department of Health spokesman Russ Kennedy said.
Kasich's staff modeled its proposal after counties' child fatality reports, which are largely shielded from public view until completed.
Members of the overdose review committee, which could include coroners, state representatives, physicians or local mental health board members, would get access to records earlier than the public to understand these deaths more quickly.
"The whole point is to help provided a more comprehensive understanding of circumstances surrounding overdose deaths," Kennedy said.
Just not to the average Bob and Betty Buckeye.
"The public should have access to the information of the important work of this committee," said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio News Media Association.
This is one of several changes Kasich has proposed making to public records law, including:
- If the Ohio Lottery Commission orders an internal audit, that document and any records created by staff would not be available to the public until they have been submitted to the members of the commission.
- The records of independent Medicaid providers would be confidential.
- Patient information in pharmacy board investigations would be confidential, so that the details are not subject to discovery in civil lawsuits, for example.