Saturday, November 12, 2011

UK's refusal to release cancer registry data violates Open Records Act

The University of Kentucky violated the Kentucky Open Records Act in denying Dr. James W. Coleman’s August 1, 2011, request for “statistical information on female breast cancers in Jefferson County,” according to a recent opinion of the Attorney General's Office.

In response to the request, Official Records Custodian Frank Butler advised Dr. Coleman that the “Kentucky Cancer Registry does not maintain the data you have requested in the format you have requested, he [Dr. Coleman] may apply for a dataset as described on the…website, and that KCR records are confidential by statute.”

The attorney general found UK’s reasons for the denial flawed. The opinion, dated Nov. 1, stated that, a “database is unquestionably a ‘public record’ as that term is defined in the Open Records Law. Dr. Coleman’s request sought information from the Kentucky Cancer Registry, which UK maintains by incidence and mortality rates for more that 70 cancer sites in the state.

The university’s first ground for the denial was that it could not sort the data by zip code and thus could not respond to the request. The attorney general rejected this argument because “UK is not statutorily required to tailor the format of its existing database to conform to the parameters of a request submitted under the Act; however, the alternative is generally to provide a requester with a copy of the entire database after those fields of information for which statutory protection exists, if any, have been redacted.”

The second reason was that UK told Dr. Coleman he could apply for a data set online. This argument was rejected by the attorney general because of KRS 61.874(3), which states that “if a public agency is asked to produced a record in non-standardized format, or to tailor the format to meet the request of an individual or group, the public agency may at its discretion provide the requested format and recover staff costs as well as actual costs incurred.” While this provision is discretionary the other option is to release the entire database. If UK did not want to sort the information requested by zip code then it was supposed to release the whole database in order to let Dr. Coleman sort it himself.

The third reason UK cited was that all cancer registry data is confidential under state law. The attorney general's opinion rejected this argument as well, restating what it had held in a 2004 opinion, the “prohibition on disclosure of data is not … absolute, but is instead confined to data identifying any person whose condition or treatment has been reported to the (Kentucky Cancer Registry.)”

Since the attorney general rejected all of the university’s reasons for the denial, and the university could not provide more detailed information on how the database is maintained, the attorney general found that UK did violate the Open Records Act by refusing to provide Dr. Coleman with access to responsive data that did not describe or identify a particular person. An Open Records Opinion of the Office of Attorney General has the force of law unless appealed to circuit court.

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