Wisc. agencies continue to deny ambulance records
By Darryl Enriquez
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Copyright 2008 The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MILWAUKEE — Some fire and police agencies continue to deny public access to ambulance reports, despite a Sept. 28 opinion from state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen that says to do so violates the state's open records law.
Those agencies continue to withhold basic public information, claiming that the federal HIPAA law allows them to withhold names and addresses of those who required medical help in ambulance calls.
That's what's occurring to news organizations in River Falls and Hudson, said Steve Dzubay, a newspaper publisher in that area.
Dzubay said he wants to run weekly lists of ambulance calls that contain time, date, place, circumstance and name, age and gender of the person who was transported.
Dzubay said in an interview that his weekly papers had regularly run ambulance call lists in the past, but the flow of information dried up with the stifling legal advice surrounding the proper application of HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
"I'm stymied and really kind of frustrated," Dzubay said.
Media lawyer Bob Dreps said misunderstanding of HIPAA continues, regardless of Van Hollen's opinion.
As an example, in a Feb. 6 letter from an attorney for St. Croix Emergency Medical Services in Hudson, Dzubay was denied access to the requested information.
The author of the letter, Catherine R. Munkittrick, questioned the validity of Van Hollen's opinion.
"Both federal and Wisconsin law recognize the significant public interest in protecting the privacy of patient health care information," she wrote.
"I have reviewed the informal A.G Opinion you referenced. With all due respect to the Wisconsin Attorney General, given the important public policies at stake, I need to research further the public interest in disclosure against the public interest in protecting the privacy of patient health care."
Munkittrick further stated that the Van Hollen opinion says the EMS must do a case-by-case analysis, "weighing the public interest in disclosure against the public interest in protecting the privacy of patient health care."
Van Hollen's opinion led the Waukesha Fire Department to discontinue its practice of redacting information from its daily log of ambulance runs.
The practice came to a head when the Journal Sentinel asked for information about an ambulance call to treat a suspected drunken mail carrier who crashed his government vehicle into a sign.
In blacking out almost the entire incident report, the department relied on advice from Waukesha City Attorney Curt Meitz's office about the use of HIPAA that it had gotten from a Web site.
Van Hollen said he wrote the opinion because HIPAA was being misinterpreted statewide with regularity.
"In this case, a local fire department had refused to provide information about a public employee who crashed his truck into a sign and was arrested for drunk driving. The taxpayers who pay for his salary, for the truck he was driving and for the auto and liability insurance — as well as the people who live in the neighborhoods he was driving drunk through — deserve to know that information."
Law is specific
Wisconsin law requires that ambulance records be available about dates of ambulance calls; dispatch and response times; reasons for dispatches; locations of dispatches; destinations of patient transport; and name, age and gender of patients, Van Hollen said.
The law prohibits disclosure of medical condition and treatment information.
Waukesha Assistant City Attorney Miles Eastman had said his office had based its early advice on a belief that HIPAA supersedes state laws on public disclosure.
A ruling from the federal Department of Health and Human Services says just the opposite — state public records laws come first, Eastman said.
In another letter, a lawyer for River Falls called Van Hollen's opinion and federal HIPAA implications confusing and said they needed further study.
The lawyer, William Thiel, did not deny Dzubay's request but took it under advisement.
- EMS Management