THOSE ELUSIVE MEDICAL RECORDS…. The New York Times’ Lawrence Altman not only covers medicine for the paper, but he’s also a trained physician. In the world of medical reporters, Altman is arguably the nation’s most respected, and he covered John McCain’s health during the 2000 campaign.

This year, after a series of unexplained delays, the McCain campaign agreed to let a handful of carefully-chosen journalists have limited and temporary access to some of McCain’s medical records — no photocopies were allowed — and excluded Altman from the invitation list. Given the circumstances — McCain is a cancer survivor and would be oldest man ever elected president — the secrecy was disconcerting.

With this background in mind, Altman’s piece in today’s Times is especially important.

Last May, [McCain’s] campaign and his doctors released nearly 1,200 pages of medical information, far more than the three other nominees. But the documents were released in a restricted way that leaves questions, even confusion, about his cancer.

A critical question concerns inconsistencies in medical opinions about the severity of his melanoma; if the classification of his melanoma is more severe, it would increase the statistical likelihood of death from a recurrence of the cancer. […]

By not allowing reporters to interview him or his doctors extensively about his entire medical history, he has made it impossible to get a complete picture of his diagnoses and treatment.

The candidates on the Democratic ticket haven’t exactly been anxious to provide detailed medical records, either. The Obama campaign released a one-page from his personal physician in May stating that he was in “excellent” health. Joe Biden, who had emergency surgery 20 years ago for an aneurysm, released 49 pages of medical records late last week showing that he was healthy, “but the documents did not indicate whether he had had a test in recent years to detect any new aneurysm.”

And then there’s Sarah Palin, who hasn’t released any medical information at all. Altman reported, “Last week Maria Comella, a spokeswoman for Ms. Palin, said the governor declined to be interviewed or provide any health records.” How reassuring.

But it’s McCain that’s arguably the most troubling. While the limited disclosure with other candidates — or, in Palin’s case, the complete absence of disclosure — is an unwelcome development, there’s little reason to question whether they’re healthy. With McCain, though, it’s a little scary. His advanced age, his bout with cancer, the absurdity of his running mate, and his secrecy lead to reasonable questions about what McCain wants to hide about his medical background.

The Washington Post reported over the weekend that there is a concern “that McCain’s cancer was more advanced than his physicians concluded and that the chance of recurrence is consequently higher. Melanoma that spreads widely through the body — ‘metastasizes,’ in medical parlance — is rapidly fatal.”

The surest and quickest way to make these questions disappear is for the McCain campaign to offer a more complete disclosure.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.