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Wisconsin's Open Records Law Trumps Secrecy

MILWAUKEE -- Some local authorities are hiding behind a federal law the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act to deny the public access to ambulance reports, despite the fact that state and federal authorities say the public has the right to see those reports.

Those local authorities need to wake up.

The local authorities in question say they have to do more research into the matter, in the meantime keeping the reports closed to the public and withholding the names and addresses of those who required medical help in ambulance calls.

But there is no need for further research. State Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen has said that denying the public access to the reports violates the state's open records law, and federal authorities have ruled that the state open records law supersedes the federal law.

The value of that access was illustrated by the case that drew Van Hollen's opinion. As the Journal Sentinel's Darryl Enriquez noted in a recent article, the Waukesha Fire Department blacked out almost the entire incident report on an ambulance call to treat a suspected drunken mail carrier who crashed his government vehicle (www.jsonline.com/728803). Van Hollen said he wrote the opinion because HIPAA was being misinterpreted statewide with regularity.

According to Steve Dzubay, a newspaper publisher in the River Falls and Hudson area, the misinterpretation is still going on, despite the attorney general's opinion. Dzubay told Enriquez that he wants to run weekly lists of ambulance calls that contain time, date, place and circumstance and name, age and gender of the person who was transported.

"I'm stymied and really kind of frustrated," Dzubay said.

He shouldn't be. Local authorities in those areas and elsewhere should review again Van Hollen's opinion and the state's open records law and then side with the public.

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