Fire departments in Wisconsin cannot use the federal HIPAA law as a reason to withhold basic public information about ambulance calls, such as names and addresses of those who required medical help, the attorney general said in an opinion issued Thursday.
The opinion by Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen will have an effect around the state, where some fire departments routinely refuse to release information about those treated by emergency personnel.
Such was the case earlier this year in Waukesha, where the Fire Department cited HIPAA privacy provisions in refusing a Journal Sentinel request to release information resulting from its call to treat a suspected drunken mail carrier who crashed his government vehicle into a sign.
In blacking out virtually every word of its report on the incident, the department relied on advice from Waukesha City Attorney Curt Meitz's office about the use of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA, a directive that his office later rescinded.
The initial refusal to release the information under the Wisconsin Public Records Law prompted a letter from Journal Sentinel Managing Editor George Stanley to the attorney general, requesting a legal opinion.
Van Hollen said he wrote the opinion because HIPAA was being misinterpreted statewide with regularity.
"Although the particular incident giving rise to your inquiry has now been resolved, I have concluded that your question merits a full answer because it continues to recur with regularity," Van Hollen said. "Consequently, record custodians and the public alike are in need of guidance."
Fire departments in West Bend and Cedarburg this year cited HIPAA to initially deny access to ambulance records. But both departments later released the information after being told of the state law pertaining to ambulance records.
Stanley praised Van Hollen's finding.
"Attorney General Van Hollen's well-researched legal opinion provides a valuable public service by clearing up confusion and explaining that federal HIPAA law does not enable local and state government officials to keep records secret if they should otherwise be open," Stanley said.
"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."
A second look
Wisconsin law requires that certain ambulance records be available to the public: 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.
The law prohibits disclosure of medical condition and treatment information.
Meitz said the opinion confirms what he and Assistant City Attorney Miles Eastman had learned about HIPAA applications after taking a second look at federal interpretations on its restrictions.
Eastman said his office based its early advice on a belief that HIPAA supersedes state laws on public disclosure. Further investigation found another ruling from the federal Department of Health and Human Services that says just the opposite -- state public records laws come first, Eastman said..
"After this matter exploded on the scene, we took a second look at the federal requirements . . . and quickly released the information," Eastman said.
The fire department then provided information on the postal worker case and began releasing the addresses to which its ambulances were sent -- information that had been routinely redacted from its logs.
The mail carrier, Thomas Lahiff, was found guilty March 23 in Waukesha Municipal Court of drunken driving. He was fined $824 and lost his driver's license for nine months.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said there have been "a lot of problems having to do with HIPAA where authorities are citing HIPAA to incorrectly deny certain information."The overriding benefit of the ruling, Lueders said, is that "it provides some direction and protection to public health officials concerning the release of public information."