A failure to protect medical privacy

An editorial from the St. Petersburg Times:


For more than half a year, strangers’ medical records jammed the home fax machine of Hudson resident Elizabeth Reed. The records described patients’ illnesses, lab results and prescription refill requests. The flow of records so disrupted the family’s home phone service that they resorted to using cell phones. Reed discovered that an incorrect phone number on a doctor’s prescription pad was to blame, but her calls to the doctor’s office, pharmacies and the state Department of Health didn’t stem the tide.

And for months, strangers’ medical records have been delivered in the mail to Elsie Huebner’s Safety Harbor home, including details of a woman’s visit to a psychiatrist, a man’s chest pains, and another man’s oxycodone prescription.

Huebner discovered the medical records came from Aetna and UnitedHealth Group insurance companies, which had mistaken her home address for a medical office where 10 doctors worked. She called the doctors and wrote “Return to Sender” on envelopes. She even contacted the federal agency responsible for enforcing HIPAA. But at best, she got only a form letter response — until the St. Petersburg Times wrote about her problem last week. Now both insurance companies have contacted her and are urgently retrieving the misdirected medical records.

Read more in the St. Petersburg Times.

Is it just my impression or does this type of repeated problem tend to happen more in the healthcare sector than other sectors? Yes, banks erroneously mail records to the wrong party, but I doubt if a bank would continue sending bank records to the same wrong address once they were notified of their mistake. And yet, over the years, I’ve read a number of news stories involving people who continue to receive faxes or mailings with medical records and they are unable to get the sending party to stop. It would be nice if HHS/OCR investigated and actually started fining parties for repeated violations.

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