Monica Lam/California Watch Shasta Regional Medical Center in Redding
A Prime Healthcare Services hospital in Redding broke state law when it publicized a patient’s confidential medical files in an effort to discredit a California Watch news report, state regulators say.
The state Department of Public Health on Tuesday issued five "deficiencies" against Shasta Regional Medical Center for what were described as repeated breaches of patient confidentiality last year.
At one point, the hospital CEO sent an e-mail to 785 people – virtually everyone who worked at the hospital – disclosing details from a 64-year-old diabetes patient’s confidential files, state investigators found.
Federal and state law forbids hospitals from disclosing a patient’s medical files without permission.
By state law, hospitals can be fined as much as $250,000 for breaching a patient's confidentiality.
The health department considers the issue of financial penalties after deficiencies are corrected, a spokesman said. Deficiencies are violations of laws or regulations applying to state hospitals.
The hospital did nothing wrong and has filed an appeal, said Prime spokesman Edward Barrera. The company "continues to believe that the disclosures, if any, were permitted under both federal and state law," he said in an e-mail.
The disclosures occurred as Prime was attempting to rebut a California Watch story on a supposed outbreak of a Third World nutritional disorder called kwashiorkor at the Redding hospital. The hospital had billed Medicare for treating more than 1,000 senior citizens for kwashiorkor over a two-year period, records show.
One of those patients, retired teacher's aide Darlene Courtois, told California Watch that she had been hospitalized for complications of diabetes, not malnutrition. She denied she was malnourished and said she had never before heard the word kwashiorkor, which means “weaning sickness” in a Ghanaian language in West Africa.
According to the health department, Prime officials zeroed in on Courtois in an effort to discredit the California Watch report.
At one point, top hospital officials took her confidential medical files to the editor of the Redding Record Searchlight newspaper and successfully lobbied him not to print the story.
Later, the hospital CEO sent an e-mail to 785 of the hospital’s medical staff and employees disclosing confidential information about Courtois’ hospitalization, according to the investigator's report.
Prime officials have claimed that her medical files proved she had been given a nutritional consultation as a treatment for malnutrition. That substantiated the kwashiorkor billing, they claimed.
Courtois denied receiving a nutritional consultation. She said the documents she received when she requested her medical files from the hospital didn’t include any information about a nutritional consultation.
Courtois’ daughter, Julie Schmitz, said she and her mother were especially troubled to learn of the reported mass e-mail of the medical records. She called the hospital’s actions “reckless and vindictive.” She said her mother isn't interested in suing, but would like the hospital to say it's sorry.
“My mom just wants a written apology, saying what they did was wrong and they wouldn’t do it to anybody else,” she said. They haven’t received an apology, she said.
The disclosures of Courtois' records were first reported in January by the Los Angeles Times. Since then, Prime has insisted it was blameless, arguing that it was permitted to publicize Courtois’ files to the public because she had showed the medical records she obtained to California Watch.
The health department report said that the hospital’s general counsel, communications director, CEO and medical officer were involved in the illegal disclosures.
The report doesn’t identify them by name. Silas Lyons, editor of the Record-Searchlight, has identified the hospital officials who brought Courtois’ records to the newspaper as Randall Hempling, the hospital CEO, and Dr. Marcia McCampbell, its chief medical officer.
In January, FBI agents interviewed Courtois in what she described as a federal inquiry into the Redding hospital's Medicare billings and the unauthorized disclosures of Courtois' files.