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Lawrence Harmon

Privacy rules get in bombing victims’ way

An unidentified woman listened to Ken Feinberg’s answer to her question about her daughter, who lost a leg in the Marathon bombings.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

An unidentified woman listened to Ken Feinberg’s answer to her question about her daughter, who lost a leg in the Marathon bombings.

Kenneth Feinberg wants nothing more than to provide a measure of justice for people harmed by the nation’s worst tragedies. But the excessive weight of privacy rules placed on health care providers and public officials makes it difficult for Feinberg, the administrator of the One Fund Boston, to do his job. Luckily, he isn’t the sensitive type.

The Brockton native speaks bluntly about his portfolio: the dead and wounded in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks; the 2007 killings at Virginia Tech; last year’s killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.; and last month’s bombing of the Boston Marathon. Still, in its darkest hours, the nation turns repeatedly to the 67-year-old Washington-based attorney and mediator — because he focuses singlemindedly on getting justice for victims and their families. Feinberg was the obvious choice to run the One Fund, the major charity designated to help the victims of the April 15 Marathon bombings.

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As the June 15 deadline for filing claims approaches, the One Fund still lacks a definitive list of victims. Feinberg, who draws no pay for this work, still doesn’t know the exact number of people injured in the attack. It’s thought to be about 275, of whom perhaps 20 lost limbs. The Boston Public Health Commission, which collected data from about 25 area hospitals after the bombings, holds the closest thing to a master list of the injured. But sharing it with the One Fund Boston would violate patient privacy, according to the commission.

This sounds like health privacy concerns gone wild. The One Fund isn’t looking for medical records or insurance information. All it really needs is for hospitals to confirm the injuries and document dates of service; victims need the equivalent of a note from their doctors. But without the ability to put claim forms directly into the hands of victims, the One Fund must appeal to the media to publicize its website and sit by hoping for the best, while the health commission does its best to inform victims of available services and hospital workers try to get medical release forms into the hands of discharged patients. To complicate matters, victims are as prone to procrastination as anyone else is. So far, the One Fund has received just a handful of completed applications, according to Feinberg.

Since the moment that the first blast tore apart lives and limbs, there has been a tremendous sense of urgency about helping the victims of the Marathon bombing and those hurt in pursuit of the terrorists. Feinberg’s mindset is similar to that of emergency responders: Rush in, make a difference, and move on to the next victim. It would be a shame if a clumsy claims process mars an otherwise brilliant response to the Marathon bombings.

Camille Biros, the deputy administrator of the One Fund, said the compensation system was designed to tilt heavily toward victims who lost a limb or limbs. A double amputee should expect about $1 million in tax-free compensation, roughly the same amount as the family of a dead victim. A single amputee should expect about $750,000. On the other end of the sliding scale, a victim whose injuries required just a one- or two-night stay in the hospital may see as little as $5,000.

The One Fund’s system of awarding money to the injured based largely on loss of limb and length of hospitalization may be criticized as slapdash. Injury law often demands excruciating analysis of lost wages, pain and suffering, and medical costs. But 70,000 donors to the One Fund Boston gave quickly, generously, and without complication. And that’s how the more than $32 million in donations should be disbursed.

Yet Barbara Ferrer, who heads the city’s health commission, has felt the need to check and double check with federal health officials even before passing on the One Fund claim forms to some of the bombing victims in her database.

“I’ve asked the feds to look at this,’’ said Ferrer. “No one in time of emergency should have to figure it out.’’

Feinberg, meanwhile, is determined to start pushing $32 million out the door beginning on June 30. He hopes to go through that door shortly after. It was good of him to come. Now, let’s hope we never see him again.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.
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