United States: Minnesota Blues Get Health Records Snooping Blues

Last Updated: March 13 2015
Article by William H. Maruca

A registered nurse employed by Minnesota Blue Cross Blue Shield (BC/BS) with a history of drug offenses allegedly accessed a prescription drug database 249 times without a legitimate purpose, according to a report by Minneapolis CBS affiliate WCCO posted by reporter Esme Murphy.

The nurse, Jim Johnson, reportedly had been previously assigned by BC/BS under the insurer's contract with the state Department of Health to monitor prescription drug use in state-run medical programs. In that capacity, he was given access to the Minnesota Prescription Monitoring Program (MNPMP), which is generally limited to licensed prescribers and pharmacists, and their delegated staff. The MNPMP was established to detect diversion, abuse and misuse of prescriptions for controlled substances.

For a period of eight months after Johnson had been reassigned to other duties, he apparently had not been removed from the list of authorized users despite BC/BS having notified the state of the change. WCCO reports that during that time Johnson had accessed 56 individuals' records, and had viewed a number of records multiple times. Investigations also revealed that Johnson had accessed some of these same individuals' social media profiles. There reportedly is no indication at this time that Johnson disclosed any of the information he obtained or that he misused that information to obtain narcotics.

State Nursing Board disciplinary records indicate that Johnson had been fired by two previous employers because of narcotic violations. He reportedly admitted to stealing drugs from Children's Hospital in St. Paul in 2000 and was fired by Unity Hospital after admitting to stealing morphine. He had not been charged criminally but had been fined and subjected to additional supervision. BC/BS was apparently unaware of Johnson's disciplinary history when he was hired.

There is plenty of blame in this situation to go around. Although the MNPMP apparently had a process in place for credentialing legitimate users, it failed to revoke those credentials when they were notified that Johnson's job no longer required him to access the database. BC/BS may have failed to monitor its employees' access to such a highly-confidential trove of information, and may have exercised poor judgment in not thoroughly vetting an employee before assigning him to such a sensitive role.

Employee "snooping" has led to serious consequences in a number of high profile cases, including a Vermont ultrasound technologist who peeked at her ex-husband's family's records, a UCLA researcher who was sentenced to prison for looking at celebrity charts, California and New York hospital workers who accessed celebrity records and 16 Houston hospital employees fired for accessing a resident's medical records after she was injured in a shooting incident.

A surprising footnote to WCCO's story is the fact that the state Department of Health reportedly misstated HIPAA's breach reporting requirements and claimed that only breaches involving 500 or more individuals were reportable. Such large-scale breaches require notice within 60 days of discovery, but, as indicated in the WCCO report, breaches involving fewer than 500 individuals must still be reported within 60 days of the close of the calendar year.

This is not BC/BS's first brush with medical privacy violations. According to the Star Tribune, in 2010, a subscriber sued the insurer for violating the Minnesota Health Records Act and breaching her privacy by disclosing her name and providing confidential information about her medical treatment. Amazingly, the patient's information was reproduced in illustrations that appeared in handbooks and marketing pamphlets instead of "dummy" information. Her ID and claims information appeared in 400 copies of a pamphlet and in 95,000 copies of a member handbook. Previously, the State Department of Commerce suspended the license of a BC/BS agent after a life insurance customer complained that the agent had improperly disclosed the customer's personal information.

Once again the temptation to rummage around in an inadequately-secured repository of information has proven too hard for an employee to resist. Few covered entities and business associates have implemented safeguards to protect data from curious (or dishonest) employees' eyes. Heightened employee training about prohibition of snooping with emphasis on discipline up to and including discharge is one step. However, the time may have come when relying on the honor system and training may be insufficient to meet HIPAA's poorly-defined "minimum necessary" standard and more robust technical solutions may be called for. Even when, as in this case, only certain individuals are given access to PHI on a need-to-know basis, there is room for improvement of monitoring and oversight of those individuals' actual behavior.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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