What began as routine file maintenance ended in an arrest and possible jail time for a licensed practical nurse who shared a patient’s medical information with her spouse.
Ms. A, 29, had been employed by a regional clinic for five years. While she enjoyed her job and got on well with her supervisor, Dr. P, she was known to bemoan what she saw as low pay and the resulting financial strain on her family. That strain intensified when her husband was in an auto accident and then sued by people in the other car who sought compensation for their injuries.
One day, as Ms. A was flipping through charts to straighten up the files, she came across a file with the plaintiff’s name on it. Reading the chart with great interest, she jotted some notes, stuck them in her bag, and replaced the file.
That night, as her husband complained about the impending lawsuit and its potential financial consequences, Ms. A just smiled and reached into her bag for the notes she’d taken earlier. “I think this will help,” she said.
The next day, Mr. A phoned the patient. During the conversation, he made it known that he had medical information he believed weakened the man’s case. Mr. A suggested that the man consider dropping the lawsuit.
After hanging up, the patient made two phone calls: first to the clinic, then to the district attorney.
The next morning, Ms. A was summarily fired. “You may very well have put this whole clinic in jeopardy,” Dr. P told her.
After Ms. A left the building, Dr. P called a meeting of all the nurses, physician assistants, and support staff and explained why Ms. A had been fired. Outlining the laws on patient privacy, he informed them that no breach of these laws would be tolerated under any circumstances.
But Ms. A’s problems were just beginning. The district attorney forwarded the patient’s complaint to a federal prosecutor, and within a month, both Ms. A and her husband were indicted. Ms. A was charged with violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and with “conspiracy to wrongfully disclose individual health information for personal gain with maliciously harmful intent in a personal dispute.” Her husband was charged with witness tampering.
The couple hired a criminal defense attorney, who negotiated a plea agreement. After a great deal of soul-searching, Ms. A pleaded guilty to one count of wrongful disclosure of individual health information for personal gain. In exchange for her plea, the charges against her husband were dismissed.
Ms. A is currently awaiting sentencing. She faces up to 10 years in prison, a fine as high as $250,000, and a possible three years of supervised probation. Meanwhile, the state nursing board is seeking to revoke her license.