Stuart Hunt's obsession has finally paid off. Sixteen months ago, Hunt's elderly mother was taken to an emergency room in Longview. Frantic, Hunt began calling from his home in...

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Stuart Hunt’s obsession has finally paid off.

Sixteen months ago, Hunt’s elderly mother was taken to an emergency room in Longview. Frantic, Hunt began calling from his home in Marysville, but the hospital stonewalled, saying federal law prevented telling him anything.

That day in August 2003, Hunt learned the name of his foe: HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a federal law whose provisions protect patient privacy. When his mother died seven weeks later, Hunt embarked on a mission to change something — anything — so other desperate families could get information about loved ones.

After a story in The Seattle Times in March detailed his quest, Hunt, a private choir director, became the reluctant leader of a movement, fueled by hundreds of families who complained of similar experiences.

Today, the Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA) announced its response to Hunt’s efforts: It is asking all state hospitals to disclose to families or close friends the location and condition of patients who are unable to tell the hospital whether they want their information released. Patients who can choose will still be asked if they want such information released.

Cassie Sauer, spokeswoman for the hospital association, thinks this is the first such action in the country by a state hospital association. She credits Hunt, who pulled together a small group of advocates, held forums and pestered anyone else who would listen.

“He pushed us on it,” she says. “He’s a very passionate advocate.”

The problem, Sauer said, is that while HIPAA allows disclosure if in the patient’s best interests, hospitals vary in applying the provision. There can be wide variation even inside one hospital, she said.

“It depends on how long people have been at the hospital, and what kind of training they received,” Sauer said.

While HIPAA has huge fines for wrongful disclosure of patient information, there is no penalty for not disclosing, Sauer notes. “You’re always safer not disclosing.”

But, the board noted in its analysis, such a policy “may cause family members or loved ones undue anxiety and may create significant adverse publicity.”

While many hospitals have told staff members they must protect patient privacy, Sauer said, “they haven’t taken the next step” to tell them it’s OK to disclose the presence and condition of a patient who has been in a car wreck or had a stroke, for example.

The WSHA board members, who voted on the policy Friday, said they were disturbed by accounts of family members thwarted in attempts to locate or learn about loved ones in hospitals.

For example:

In Oregon, a man searched in vain for his disoriented sister for two weeks, as one medical facility after another refused to verify her presence.

In Las Vegas, a middle-school student who had been stabbed in the chest spent more than two days in a hospital without anyone who knew him being able to find him.

One such experience involved WSHA’s own president, Leo Greenawalt. Late last year, Greenawalt learned that his elderly father had been taken from his home in Pennsylvania by ambulance.

Although the local hospital confirmed his dad was there, it wouldn’t give Greenawalt any information.

Under the policy advocated by WSHA, health providers would not disclose information if they believed refusing to do so was in the best interest of a patient (for example, a victim of domestic violence). And hospitals would continue to follow state laws prohibiting disclosure of information about certain patients; for example, those admitted for mental-health treatment or into federally assisted substance-abuse treatment.

David Allen, spokesman for the American Hospital Association, said he’s not aware of any other state hospital organization backing a similar disclosure policy.

Today, WSHA is also releasing a guide to HIPAA for law enforcement. The federal law has complicated policing when suspects, victims or missing persons become patients, said Sauer and Seattle Police Department legal adviser Leo Poort.

Since HIPAA took effect in April, there have been attempts in other states to modify or clarify the law.

One of the boldest efforts was launched in February by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who thinks the law has been improperly used to shield vital public information such as the medical condition of criminal suspects. Abbott ruled that state public-records laws supersede federal mandates. However, his decision is stalled under appeal.

Hunt, at one point, thought changing state law would be the best way to resolve the problem in Washington state.

But many hospitals, the WSHA board noted, worried that legislation could lead to more regulation.

Hunt, who is in the midst of conducting a musical, says he’s pleased with WSHA’s decision.

It doesn’t bother him, he says, if others call him “obsessed.”

“I was. I am,” he says. “I’m obsessed that our government could and would do this to its citizens, and not resolve it — say, ‘All right, we made a mistake.’ “

He thinks the federal government should have made it clear to hospitals they wouldn’t be penalized for providing information to family members seeking to help a patient.

“I was my mother’s only living relative. … And I was powerless to help long-distance,” he says.

Sauer says the hospital association thinks that neither HIPAA nor state law prohibits hospitals from disclosing location and condition information on incapacitated patients.

“We believe the law allows this now, so we don’t need a law, we just need to make it happen.”

Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or Seattle Times staff reporter Michael Berens contributed to this report.