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Law should be repealed

Amy Archer Gilligan may have founded the first for-profit nursing home in the United States, an achievement somewhat spoiled when she poisoned five or maybe 48 of her customers in that pioneering Windsor institution nearly a century ago.

The actual number of her victims may or may not be found in the records of Gilligan’s long stay in what is now the Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown, where she died in 1962. But no one will be researching these and other details of the Gilligan saga soon, especially Connecticut writer Ron Robillard, who has been denied a look at the records for a book he’s writing on Gilligan.

The Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS) is behind a law that bars access to the records of Gilligan and other figures of historic interest whose relationship with doctors and others were protected while they were alive — and even those whose relationships weren’t. That they are long dead doesn’t matter.

As of Oct. 1, thousands of documents could be lost to history, thanks to this legislation, which was sneaked into a bill without the consideration or knowledge of those who passed it.

Among the documents are the historically and medically significant records of Civil War veterans treated in the hospital for what was then called soldier’s heart or sometimes, nostalgia, and is now known as post traumatic stress disorder. As a result, we will know less about these heroes, their illnesses and care.

As first reported by Thomas Scheffey of The Connecticut Law Tribune, the law was passed after the Mental Health Department failed to reverse a Freedom of Information Commission decision requiring the release of the records of Civil War veterans treated in the state’s insane asylum, as it was then known.

The department tried again and was able to get an amendment inserted into one of those last-minute bills that gets through the Legislature when lawmakers traditionally vote for anything put in front of them.

The bill exempts from the Freedom of Information Act privileged records from doctor-patient, marital, clergy-penitent and therapist-patient relationships “or any other privilege established by the common law or the general statutes.” Then, to be sure no bit of history is left unsuppressed, the law applies even to relationships that go back to a time when there were no laws against making them public, even no state of Connecticut.

“It actually impacts everything historians are going to do in terms of looking at the past,” Central Connecticut history professor Matthew Warshauser, author of a new book on Connecticut in the Civil War, told Scheffey.

Warshauer had his first confrontation with the DMHAS when it refused him access to the Civil War era records, after first denying they existed. (When author Robillard first sought Gilligan’s records, the department used a similarly clever tactic, claiming the records were missing and presumably destroyed. It wasn’t true.)

In addition to abetting the censorship of history, the Mental Health Department is mocking its own highly praised effort to remove the stigma associated with mental illness.

Testifying against releasing the information on the Civil War veterans, Commissioner Patricia Rehmer claimed it was the department’s “firm belief that family members of those who have been in state hospitals would not want that information released.”

And so, the department is championing those who believe there is something shameful about having relatives who suffered from mental illness that was the result of fighting for their country 150 years ago.

I guess it’s also shielding any remaining Archers and Gilligans who don’t want to have Great-Great-Aunt Amy back in the news. (The Gilligans probably don’t really care since second husband Michael Gilligan is believed to be the only nonclient Amy poisoned.)

Mitchell Pearlman, who retired as executive director of the Freedom of Information Commission after more than 30 years, generously called the law an act of “thoughtlessness, rather than being pernicious.” Pearlman is a kind man, and the Legislature can confirm his tolerant assessment of their thoughtless, but not pernicious action by repealing the law with all deliberate speed.

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at dahles@hotmail.com.

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