Bill would open S.C. EMS records

A bill to shed light on how emergency response teams do their jobs got a boost Thursday in the S.C. Legislature - despite a continuing disagreement over public access to emergency services records.

A Senate subcommittee approved a bill opening emergency medical services information - including response times - to the public. The bill now goes to the full committee.

Since an August 2009 S.C. Attorney General's opinion, officials in Columbia and in Beaufort County have declined to release information about EMS calls, saying it isn't public. That includes how emergency workers responded to a stricken 3-year-old boy in Columbia and a severely beaten man in Beaufort County.

Former Rep. Steve Lanford, who heads the S.C. Emergency Medical Services Association, said Thursday he wants the names of emergency workers kept confidential unless they are under a state inquiry for their performance. Otherwise they could be falsely accused and their names distributed in the media, he said.

"What the press is looking to do through . . . negative ads in newspapers, is 'Let's make them guilty until they prove themselves innocent,' " Lanford said.

But S.C. Press Association director Bill Rogers said the names should be public, just like police officers and firefighters, to make sure they're accountable.

"These are public servants," Rogers said. "We've had two severe cases where information has not been able to be released, one in Beaufort and another one in Columbia just recently. So we really think this is an important bill and needs to move forward."

That dispute has slowed progress on a bill intended to open all the records now being interpreted as closed, including 911 recordings, reports on response times and incident reports. The attorney general's opinion says current state law protects any data from release that would identify emergency medical personnel.

Sen. Harvey Peeler, who chairs the Medical Affairs Committee, said the dispute needs a resolution and the records need to be opened.

"I'm real mad about it," Peeler said after Thursday's meeting. "Let's fix it."

Peeler, R-Cherokee, said he introduced legislation six years ago that inadvertently closed the records at the request of the Department of Health and Environmental Control. But the intent was to protect patient privacy, not shut off information about response calls, Peeler said. The bill before the Senate now continues to protect patient privacy.

If the bill becomes law, media outlets and individuals could obtain the records through freedom of information requests.

Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said that while the disagreement hasn't been resolved, the full Senate Medical Affairs Committee needs to vote on the bill.

"As much as we sometimes hate to face these issues, it's just one we need to face," Hutto said. It "doesn't look like there is a compromise. But it certainly deserves consideration."