- Associated Press - Monday, February 29, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Toxicology reports from autopsies are medical records that cannot be released to the public, but coroners may talk publically about the results of blood screenings for alcohol and drugs without violating federal health privacy law, according to an opinion released by the state Attorney General’s Office.

The opinion was requested by Spartanburg County Coroner Rusty Clevenger as he investigated the deaths of four USC Upstate students in an Oct. 11 car crash near campus. Clevenger usually releases toxicology reports in cases with a lot of public interest, but some family members of the students objected to him releasing the results.

After reading the opinion, Clevenger released the results from the reports Monday. The driver and two of the three passengers killed had blood-alcohol levels above the 0.08 percent where a jury can consider someone legally drunk in South Carolina, he said.

Clevenger said he requested the opinion because he wants to follow the law and also take care of the families of the dead he investigates.

“These people take me and my staff in confidence,” Clevenger said. “Their secrets are told to me and my staff.”

The opinion issued last week relies on a 2014 state Supreme Court ruling that found autopsy reports are medical records exempt from public release under the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act.

“A toxicology report, similar to an autopsy, is a diagnostic test yielding medical information,” assistant attorney general Brenden McDonald wrote in the opinion.

Nearly two years after the Supreme Court’s ruling, there remains little guidance on what, if anything, coroners may release to the public about suspicious deaths in their counties. But the state attorney general’s opinion does appear to allow coroners to talk about the results of blood tests without releasing the toxicology report, saying coroners do not appear to be medical providers under the health privacy act known as HIPPA.

An autopsy isn’t included in the federal government’s exhaustive list of medical procedures and coroners determine cause of death; they do not provide health care “or bill or receive payment for health care,” the opinion reads.

After the 2014 ruling, South Carolina joined about 25 states that keep autopsy results from the public, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

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This story has been corrected to reflect that the attorney general’s opinion was released last week, not Monday.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP. His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/jeffrey-collins


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