Politics & Government

S.C. panel: Open most EMS records

The public should be able to learn about the performance of rescue teams that respond to sick or injured people, a legislative panel agreed Thursday.

After weeks of discussion, the Senate Medical Affairs Committee voted for a plan to open most emergency medical service records that were sealed last year following a state attorney general's opinion.

The unanimous vote sends the bill to the full Senate. A similar House bill is still in a committee.

Committee members agreed the public should have access to records of EMS responses. That would include incident reports and other information showing the response times to emergency calls, according to the Medical Affairs Committee.

But in voting for the bill, Senate committee members also agreed to keep secret the names of emergency medical service employees - unless a state investigative panel finds evidence of wrongdoing by the individuals. The S.C. Emergency Medical Services Association had asked for the exemption, saying emergency workers could be subjected to unfair criticism.

"It allows all general information to be opened up, it just takes the names away," Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, said.

Providing the names of EMS workers without the investigative panel's determination would allow the news media to go on "fishing expeditions," said Sen. Mick Mulvaney, R-Lancaster.

Bill Rogers, director of the S.C. Press Association, said looking at such information is part of the "watchdog role of the media. Some of you don't understand the watchdog role."

The snafu over access to emergency medical service records emerged last year as media outlets attempted to answer questions about responses in the death of a 3-year-old Columbia boy and a severely beaten man in Beaufort County. Local governments, citing an August 2009 attorney general's opinion, declined to disclose 911 recordings and other records showing EMS response times.

The attorney general's opinion examined a 2004 law advanced by Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee. Peeler, who chairs the medical committee, said he backed the 2004 legislation at the request of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. Peeler said he never intended for EMS records to be sealed, only that patient privacy be protected.

DHEC Commissioner Earl Hunter said his agency would not take a position Thursday on whether to open the EMS workers' names.

Hunter, a former DHEC lobbyist, apologized Thursday to Peeler, but he also defended his agency's actions in 2004. Hunter said the 2004 law was a rewrite of the EMS code that included training requirements and background checks for EMS workers - and the provision about worker confidentiality was only a part of it. Hunter said that part of the 2004 law came from a 1998 EMS law that had been fully debated at the time.

"We've been accused of trying to 'hoodoo' the senator or sneak something in, in 2003-2004," Hunter told the committee. "We pulled this language from something that was passed back in 1998 and got a full vetting by everybody. Even in the title of the bill it talks about confidentiality. So anybody who missed it or anybody that didn't pick up on it or testify about it, they had their chance then."