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MADISON - Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen issued an informal opinion today concluding that the Federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) does not categorically prohibit the release of records of calls made by Wisconsin ambulance service providers. The informal opinion provides guidance to a complex intersection of federal health care law and state law involving the public's access to records.
HIPAA provides that health care providers may not use or disclose protected health information except as required by law. Wisconsin law provides that ambulance service providers may release the date of the call; the dispatch and response times; the reason for the dispatch; the location to which the ambulance was dispatched; the destination, if any, to which the patient was transported; and the name, age and gender of the patient. The medical history, condition or emergency treatment of any patient cannot be released under Wisconsin law.
After examining the statutes and rules in question, recent case law, and guidance from the Department of Health and Human Services, Van Hollen's opinion concludes that federal law does not create a blanket prohibition on the release of ambulance records. Instead, records custodians are required in every case to apply the common law public interest balancing test when receiving a request. Van Hollen noted that although the opinion discussed the law specifically concerning ambulance records, the same analysis would apply to the public records law. He emphasized, however, that the opinion only means that a records custodian cannot deny access to records by simply referring to the federal law. Rather, a record custodian must consider Wisconsin's laws, including laws governing the confidentiality of medical information, when deciding what records can be released under the public records law.
The Attorney General's informal opinion was in response to correspondence received from George Stanley, Vice President and Managing Editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.