County court rules in favor of Pottsville newspaper, will receive names, addresses of 2017 drug overdose victims
By Kaylee Lindenmuth
POTTSVILLE - The county's only daily newspaper filed suit against the county coroner's office, after a request for names, ages, addresses, causes and manners of death of county drug overdose victims for 2017 was denied. The information request also included which drugs were in the victims' systems. Recently, Schuylkill County Court ruled in favor of the newspaper.
The Pottsville Republican-Herald newspaper and staff writer Amy Marchiano submitted a right-to-know request for such information in May, and a county deputy coroner provided information, though with no names and addresses, citing HIPAA.
An order issued on October 23 by Judge John E. Domalakes ruled the Schuylkill County Coroner's Office must release the requested information to the newspaper.
The Coroner's office has 30 days to either appeal the decision, or provide the information, if fees are paid.
The newspaper filed an appeal in May with the Commonwealth Office of Open Records, the government agency administering PA's Right-To-Know law, who ruled in its favor in July. The county then appealed to the Schuylkill County Court of Common Pleas.
In an email, Republican-Herald Publisher Henry Nyce said they made the request "because we have no comprehensive drug overdose information."
"The Coroner's Office of Schuylkill hasn't given us any information and that information is of the public interest. Ultimately, the records are public and the public should be able to determine if the coroner's office is doing their job," said Nyce. "You can't have accountability if you don't have access and any journalist would agree. More importantly, the Office of Open Records in Harrisburg has granted our request for that information."
On September 14, a pre-trial conference was held at the courthouse in Pottsville, and the trial began this week, with Judge John. E. Domalakes presiding.
Schuylkill County deputy coroner John Mika reaffirmed the reasoning behind withholding the information: HIPAA.
According to Mika, HIPAA's privacy protections do not allow for the release of such information, and if they did so, county officials could be subject to criminal penalties. He added that the law covers the deceased for 50 years after death.
Mika then added that documents from medical facilities are tagged with warnings that "the information is private and disclosure could involve legal penalties."