COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio’s public-records law trumps federal medical-privacy rules, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled late last week in ordering the Cincinnati Health Department to give a newspaper records on lead-paint hazards.
Attorneys for both sides had called this one of the first tests in the nation of how the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act interacts with state public-records laws that conflict with it.
“This could have nationwide impact,” said John Greiner, attorney for The Cincinnati Enquirer, which sought citation letters for properties where a child’s blood was found to have high levels of lead.
Justice Terrence O’Donnell, writing for the court in its March 17 ruling in State ex rel. Cincinnati Enquirer v. Daniels, said the justices faced a quandary: Federal law says the health records are protected unless state law requires releasing them — while Ohio law says public records must be released unless federal law protects them.
The ruling said Ohio’s law takes precedence because the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services clearly stated its intent that HIPAA would not override state law.
After the ruling, the department also offered to release any records produced since the lawsuit started.
The Enquirer asked two years ago for copies of the letters, which the city sent to owners of properties where tests had identified children who had high levels of lead in the blood. Even very low levels of the toxic metal can impair learning and damage health. The newspaper wants to report on how much progress has been made removing lead hazards from homes.
Under court-ordered mediation, the city earlier had released records for 170 schools, day cares and buildings housing multiple families but withheld 173 letters that gave the addresses of single-family homes.
The letters did not name the children or identify the amounts of lead contamination. The Health Department had argued the newspaper could identify the children by the addresses. The newspaper argued families could have moved or many children could live at one address.
The ruling sided with the newspaper, saying the records didn’t meet the federal definition to require protection — but even if they did, they must be released under Ohio law.
J. Rita McNeil, city solicitor, said the department wanted only clarification. “This wasn’t a battle about policy,” she said.
The court declined to award attorneys fees, saying the case settled a legitimate legal issue that had never before been raised in the state.
Recent rulings from the high court have restricted access to some records, saying state employee addresses, law enforcement officer photos and public university research records are off-limits.