USF issues substitute notice after email error exposed names and email addresses

The University of South Florida (“USF”) is posting this substitute notice in a good faith attempt to notify those affected individuals for whom we have insufficient or out-of-date contact information that precludes written notification.    We take individuals’ privacy very seriously and we are addressing this matter expeditiously to ensure the trust of our patients and our community.

Individuals who may be affected:

  • Individuals who voluntarily joined a list to receive email information and news from the USF Health Byrd Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center (“Center”); and
  • who also received the email dated November 15, 2016 with the subject line “Mark You[r] Calendars Now! April 1st!”.

USF first learned of this incident on March 29, 2017, by notification from the Department of Health & Human Service (“HHS”), Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) of a complaint about an email sent on November 15, 2016.  The email was sent by a USF employee to individuals who had voluntarily joined a list to receive email information and news from the Center.

Upon receipt of OCR’s letter, we immediately began our investigation and spoke with the employee who sent the email on November 15, 2016.   The employee did not blind copy recipients.  Therefore, each recipient’s name and/or email was visible to all recipients.

The only identifying information disclosed was their name and/or email address as one of the recipients.  The email notified recipients of “A Walk for Parkinson’s.”  Inclusion as a recipient of the email does not mean the recipient, the recipient’s family member, or someone the recipient knows has Parkinson’s disease or a related disorder.  There are many reasons individuals are interested in and want to know more about Parkinson’s and movement disorders, and it would be wrong to conclude that everyone on the list has Parkinson’s.  As it could potentially be inferred that at least some recipients or their family members have Parkinson’s, we are notifying all recipients of this potential breach of privacy under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”).

As this disclosure was limited to only names and/or email addresses, along with information about “A Walk for Parkinson’s”, it does not pose a risk of identity theft or medical identity theft.  Participation on the email list is voluntary and each recipient always has a right to opt out of receiving future emails from the Center. To do so, recipients may simply reply to the email requesting to be removed.

USF Health takes individuals’ privacy seriously and we are taking steps to protect against further incidents. We provided education to our employee. We are exploring alternative methods to provide pertinent information to interested individuals while preventing all recipients being visible.  USF Health sanctions providers and staff who violate HIPAA, and this employee’s actions are under review for determination of appropriate sanctions.

Should you have any questions regarding this notification, please call our toll free number at 888-695-2939 by July 12, 2017.  Please reference the USF report number “PRPP 04-032917” when you call.   

SOURCE: University of South Florida

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