The names of individuals buried in a state cemetery are death records, the Nebraska Supreme Court said today, ruling that they must be released in accordance with the state’s open records law.
The Adams County Historical Society sought the names of 957 people buried in numbered graves in the cemetery attached to the Hastings Regional Center, a former mental institution. They were denied access to the names by the records custodian, who claimed that the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) prevented their release. The Historical Society countered that the information constituted death records, not medical records that might be covered by HIPAA.
The high court in Nebraska agreed. The Nebraska open records law provides that medical records "other than records of births and deaths" may be withheld from the public. The court found that the cemetery information fell into the death-record category because it was even more limited than what is released to the public on an actual death certificate. Furthermore, the data sought did not describe the diagnosis or treatment of the individuals at the facility — just their names and locations of burial.
The court held that "HIPAA does not bar release of the information" and, in fact, "provides for release of information when required by state law." As the records here were death records under Nebraska law, the court said, they must be released.
The Reporters Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief in this case.