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of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA, a directive that his office later rescinded.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.