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HIPAA, HITECH & HIT Legal Issues, Developments and Other Pertinent Information Relating To The Creation, Use and Exchange of Electronic Health Records

Another Case of Snooping Prosecuted

Posted in HIPAA Enforcement

Once again, a healthcare worker’s inability to resist the temptation to snoop in her employer’s medical records has resulted in criminal prosecution. In the latest incident, a Vermont ultrasound technologist improperly accessed the electronic medical records of her husband’s former wife and her children, allegedly over a period of 12 years. The victim, also employed by the same hospital, was frustrated by the hospital administration’s delays in responding to her complaints and notified others including the FBI, her state senator and the American Civil Liberties Union before action was taken.

The Rutland, VT Herald reports that Kathy Tatro of Bennington, VT pleaded guilty to four counts of unauthorized access to computer records in a plea bargain that imposed probation and required her to serve 160 hours of community service, which will include talking to medical employees about the importance of privacy regarding patient records. The Bennington Banner reports that Ms. Tatro was given a 6-12 month suspended sentence, 2 years probation and a $2,000 fine.

This blog has noted other instances of snooping leading to serious consequences, including the case of a UCLA researcher sentenced to prison time for reading records of celebrities and co-workers, a Texas nurse fired for unauthorized access, a California hospital fined after employees accessed Michael Jackson’s records, a New York hospital that suspended employees for accessing George Clooney’s records after a motorcycle accident, and the termination of 16 hospital employees for accessing the records of an injured first-year resident.

The Vermont ACLU claims that this incident is “believed to be the most extensive breach of personal electronic medical records ever reported in Vermont.” The ACLU noted that the victim had explained in court how the system let her down.

“No investigation was begun nor any remedial action taken until she spoke up, complained, and dogged doctors, hospital administrators and trustees, state officials, federal officials, police officers, and the state’s attorney to do something. The privacy protections in place don’t work on their own; you have to fight to protect your rights.”

Based on reports, it appears this case was brought solely under state privacy laws, not HIPAA. It is not clear whether the Vermont Attorney General was involved, even though it seems that the victim alerted a variety of authorities.  

This case is yet another cautionary tale that should be considered by anyone in a position to access health records without a legitimate purpose, as well as by hospitals and other covered entities who should reevaluate the safeguards they have in place to track and prevent or at least discourage unauthorized access.