UK errs in suing WUKY reporter; avoiding questions about surgeries

In a really sad day for both open inquiry and freedom of information, the University of Kentucky last week sued a reporter for its public radio station.

It did so rather than respect an opinion by the Attorney General's office and release information about a high-profile program at UK hospital that was shut down last year with no explanation.

The university should withdraw its lawsuit, cooperate with the AG's office, and quit protecting its own reputation by hiding behind the ruse of patient confidentiality.

Some background: In 2007 Dr. Mark Plunkett became UK chief of cardiothoracic surgery. A specialist in pediatric cardiothoracic surgery, he became one of the highest paid people on campus, at $700,000 a year.

Late last year, UK said Plunkett had stopped performing surgeries pending an internal review. And that is where the information ended.

Citing open records law, Brenna Angel, a reporter for UK-owned WUKY-FM, asked for some specific information:

1. The number of surgeries Plunkett performed in the previous three years.

2. The date of Plunkett's last surgery.

3. Payments received for surgeries performed by Plunkett in 2010 and 2011.

4. The mortality rate of pediatric cardiothoracic surgery cases in the previous three years.

5. Documentation related to any evaluations/accreditations of the program in those three years.

She did not request the names of, or any other identifying information about, the patients.

UK answered questions 1 and 3 but declined on the rest, citing patient confidentiality. UK said Plunkett performed so few surgeries that it might be possible to identify individual patients.

Angel then appealed UK's response to the Office of the Attorney General, which renders opinions on freedom of information cases in Kentucky.

UK wasn't much more cooperative with the AG than with Angel.

Attorney William Thro, again citing patient confidentiality, declined on 2 and 4 and did not address number 5.

The AG's office asked UK to provide the records for confidential review but UK did not provide them.

In March, the AG said UK had violated state open-records laws by denying the records. The AG noted that generally open-records law trumps patient-privacy laws in the these cases.

Last week, UK appealed the AG ruling in circuit court, suing Angel but not the station it owns.

For UK, a public institution, to so thoroughly disregard years of legal precedent is disturbing.

If UK is trying to manage its image, it has made a huge blunder.

Stonewalling on this request only makes it appear that the university is more interested in keeping under wraps whatever has gone wrong in Plunkett's department rather than protecting the confidentiality of its patients — living or dead.

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