EVEN THOUGH IT turned out that the delay in getting him to the hospital did not kill Jadan Myers-Pugh, the 3-year-old's death already has prompted officials to begin talks about ending what clearly seems a too-bureaucratic and potentially dangerous policy that prohibits Columbia firefighters from driving Richland County ambulances in emergencies.
We hope publicity surrounding his tragic death also can serve as a catalyst to fix a clearly bad state law.
When a reporter for The State asked to review the incident report and recordings from the EMS call, he ran head-first into an obscure five-year-old law and a two-month old attorney general's opinion that said that when it comes to emergency medical services, the public has no right to monitor how its government works.
Actually, the law is worse than that. Most secrecy laws merely allow governments to hide information from the public. This law requires it.
The law prohibits the release of the identities not only of patients but also of emergency services personnel. The attorney general's opinion says it also shields any information "that would ordinarily lead one to discover the identity of emergency medical personnel" as well as "all data, including response times, trip numbers, requests for helicopter transport by numbers and dates and other general raw data compiled from day to day operations" of emergency services agencies.
A spokesman for the attorney general's office said the opinion doesn't prohibit as much as Columbia officials claim, and we hope that's true. But the law, and the attorney general's interpretation of it, is so expansive that it's easy to see how officials could take it to cover everything surrounding an EMS call. In either event, it needs changing.
The names of EMS responders shouldn't be shielded from the public any more than the names of police officers (which are public record) should be. But that's a small problem compared to the blanket shield of everything related to EMS calls. That makes it virtually impossible to judge either individual cases (Did this particular ambulance crew dither, endangering a patient's life?) or overall performance (Are city or county response times adequate? Are they adequate in upscale neighborhoods but not in areas with less political pull?).
When this question arose recently in Beaufort County, an official said the public didn't need that information, because "we have people - professionals - in positions to make sure the level of service provided is commensurate with the demands of the community." In other words, just trust the people who are making the decisions to let us know if they've made bad decisions.
That's not how government works in a free society - or at least it's not supposed to be.
Senate Medical Affairs Chairman Harvey Peeler, who says DHEC asked him to sponsor the bill to comply with federal medical privacy laws, says he had no idea how much it shut off public scrutiny. That's deeply disturbing, as is the fact that other legislators seemed to be caught unaware by its breadth as well. But at least Mr. Peeler has vowed to fix the law; that's something that shouldn't require a lot of debate.
Officials at DHEC, on the other hand, have expressed no alarm about its scope, saying only that they are reviewing the law to determine whether changes are needed. Fortunately, that's not DHEC's call. And the fact that the agency pushed for this change without making it crystal clear to lawmakers just how breathtakingly broad it was raises troubling questions about how much legislators can trust its advice.