OMAHA — A judge has ordered the state of Nebraska to make public the names of people buried in the Hastings Regional Center cemetery or explain in court why the records should continue to be sealed.
A court hearing is scheduled for Dec. 6 if the records aren’t released, and the state is expected to fight the order by Adams County District Judge Terri Harder. The state has until Oct. 24 to file its response.
The Adams County Historical Society filed a lawsuit in August asking the former state psychiatric hospital to open records revealing the identities of 957 people buried in the hospital cemetery.
The historical society contends that the burial logs are public records and should be available for viewing.
Nancy Kinyoun, the hospital’s health information manager, has said she can’t release names of those buried because of statutes protecting patient privacy. The state Attorney General’s Office upheld Kinyoun’s position in a May opinion.
San Francisco attorney Thomas Burke, a Hastings native who represents the historical society, said the recent court order is a “preliminary step.”
“For me to say it was anything other than the process that you go through on this would not be correct,” Burke said. “But, looking at it the other way, we would not be in court if the court hadn’t issued this order.”
Marla Augustine, spokeswoman for state Health and Human Services, which operates the regional center, maintained that the records are confidential.
“They are not public records, and we’ll be responding to the lawsuit,” she said.
Burke said the historical society isn’t asking for medical records, just the identities and dates of the deaths of people buried in the cemetery between 1889 and 1950.
Graves in the cemetery, on the west side of the hospital grounds, are marked by small headstones with numbers.
Names of former hospital patients buried at private cemeteries in and around Hastings are available to the public.
The state no longer uses the regional center for adult psychiatric services.
Catherine Renschler, the historical society’s executive director, said she receives several inquiries a month from people who want to verify whether they have family members buried at the hospital.
Families can obtain patient records, including burial information, by court order on a “need-to-know” basis.