Your Privacy Rights Exposed - KCBD NewsChannel 11 Lubbock

11/6/03

Your Privacy Rights Exposed

Finding personal medical records wasn't the objective. It started as a story about identity theft. That brought the unpleasant task of "dumpster diving" searching through dumpster's to see what personal information we could find. We thought it would be a good way to show a problem and alert viewers on how they inadvertently help criminals by what they toss into the trash.

Patients React to Medical Records Found by NewsChannel 11
Two weeks ago we told you about Lubbock medical facilities which had apparently discarded private documents of some patients into dumpsters behind their offices. A lot has changed since we started this investigation.

During our search we found lots of personal information simply thrown away. It wasn't shredded or ripped up, but tossed out for anyone to pick-up and use. More shocking, pages of medical records belonging to patients including social security numbers, addresses, even specifics about diagnosis. What's worse, we didn't have to be a master thieves or even look very hard.

In our search through more than a dozen dumpster's behind medical clinics, at least three of them contained medical records. One of them, belonging to woman that we will call 'Jane' to protect her identity, was outraged over what we found.

"You got my name, address, my phone number, my entire visit with my doctor out of a dumpster and that I'm not happy about," says Jane. Jane's personal information, along with more than a dozen other documents, were found behind Lubbock Bone and Joint at 4110 22nd Place. In the thrown-away papers are the names of other patient's, and their personal and private medical information.

With the evidence in hand, we asked Lubbock Bone and Joint for an explanation. What we got was a written statement, they wouldn't appear on camera. The statement said: "At Lubbock Sports Medicine value the privacy of our patients are very concerned by the inadvertent disposal of some patient information. I have redoubled our efforts to prevent this from happening in the future. This includes employee education and the addition of several additional shredders to insure any private information is destroyed before it ever leaves the building."

Lubbock Bone and Joint wasn't the only medical practice where we found personal and private documents. NewsChannel 11 found documents from four other patients in the trash outside of a doctors office here in Lubbock and another public clinic. But their responses were much different. They claim, the patient could have "taken this piece of paper and threw it in the dumpster" themselves. However, the doctor's office did take action. We saw for ourselves a week after our investigation, they replaced the city dumpster with this one and added a bar and lock to prevent scavenging and from quote "this happening again."

We want to point out, an identity thief could have easily plucked out any of the and gained access to names and detailed medical information. In all more than a dozen documents were found tossed in dumpsters, a violation of patients privacy and a new law that took effect last April. That new law is called the "Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act." In business, most people call it H.I.P.A.A. It's the wide-ranging federal law governing the use and release of a patient's personal health information. Each time a patient sees a doctor, is admitted to a hospital, goes to a pharmacist or sends a claim to a health plan, a record is made of their confidential health information. Under the H.I.P.A.A. law, this information can only be released if the patient gives their permission and the confidentiality of those records must be protected.

Covenant Health System Public Information Director Eddie Owens says these clinics have essentially broken the law. "Destroying or throwing away information that could be released or could become public in any way in the trash can or someone even accidentally sees it on a computer screen or whatever is essentially a violation of H.I.P.A.A. regulations," says Owens.

In Jane's case her confidentiality was violated when her records were not properly disposed of. You should know "Jane" worked as a nurse for 30 years and is very familiar with how medical records are to be treatment their confidentiality should be top priority in any clinic. "I am very disappointed that you could look in a dumpster and there my records ire lying on top."

Jane says, even though mistakes happen, in the medical field patients' records should be treated with the same respect as a patient themselves. "I want people to understand that it is a violation of my privacy. Whether it be from a physician's office, from a hospital wherever, that just should not happen. I hope that these clinics where you found those records will definitely do a lot of training with their people," says Jane.

Each of the clinics in question told us they have reminded their employees about the H.I.P.A.A. laws and are taking extra precautions to protect their patients privacy. They also say this will not happen again. Most clinics shred their records some of them have them incinerated. There is no law stating that they have to be shredded, but records are to be kept confidential and destroyed in that same manner.

NewsChannel 11 have made repeated attempts to contact those specific patients and so far we have been unsuccessful in getting their side of the story. That is why we chose not to identify those clinics that claim it wasn't their fault. We will continue to try and contact those patients to clarify the issue.

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