Tulsa Fire Officials Frustrated With Area Hospitals

Thursday, April 2nd 2009, 9:35 pm
By: News On 6

By Lori Fullbright, The News On 6

TULSA, OK -- The Tulsa Fire Department is clashing with area hospitals over the release of patient information.

Fire officials say twice in the past week, people have died in meth fires. Instead of learning about the deaths from the hospital, they had to read about it in an obituary or find out from the medical examiner's office.

They don't know why the hospital won't give them the information, whether it's policy or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act that protects patient privacy, but they hope something can change.

When a meth lab exploded at the Royal Arms Apartments three weeks ago, 39-year-old Maria Martinez was one of the people hurt. She was taken to Hillcrest Medical Center's burn unit in critical condition.

When word got out last Friday she had died, Capt. Michael Baker, the public information officer for the fire department, says he called Hillcrest to confirm, but they wouldn't tell him.

He didn't find out until two days later when he saw her obituary.

Before Baker could meet with Hillcrest to see what happened and why, he says it happened again.

This time, a meth lab blew up at the Commanche Park Apartments on Monday and 28-year-old Sean Ketcher was taken the Hillcrest for burns.

Word spread Tuesday he died and again, Baker says he called Hillcrest to confirm but was told the hospital could give him no information.

He later learned about the death from the medical examiner's office.

"It should not be 12-14 hours later we receive notification through unofficial channels there has been a death," Baker said. "When we are investigating a crime, we need to know as soon as possible."

The fire department says that information changes the type of crime being investigated and must be reported to the state.

They would like to know whether it's law or policy or lack of trust that's created the situation and want to work with the hospitals not against them to make sure accurate information is released.

In a statement Hillcrest said: "Our position is that we respect the privacy of our patients. We will disclose or restrict disclosure according to the laws and/or at the request of patients or their family."

Hillcrest officials say they will discuss specific cases with The News On 6 on Friday.

Tulsa Police said they also have a tough time getting information from hospitals. They have had four missing person cases they spent manpower investigating recently where all ended up being in Tulsa hospitals, even though their families had been told they weren't there.

Hospitals say they are in a tough spot because they can't risk breaking a federal law or getting sued for releasing too much information.