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Wrong number sends personal medical information to family's fax

HUDSON — Elizabeth Reed knows too much.

She knows about a woman's sore on her coccyx. She's seen a man's blood work results. She knows a doctor's home phone number and what medicines he prescribed for his kids.

"I shouldn't have this information," said Reed, who is aware of federal privacy laws that protect medical records. "This is private, personal information. I wouldn't want anyone to have that information about me."

How does she know these details? They come unsolicited to her home fax machine. A fax number on a doctor's office prescription pad was off by one digit. So instead of going to the practice Doctors at Home, requests for treatments or prescription refills went to Reed. "I've got things from podiatrists' offices, nursing homes, pharmacies …" said Reed, 62, who keeps the faxes in a shoe box after trying to track the origin of each one and notify the sender.

When some nursing home forms first showed up in September, she thought it was a one-time mistake but soon after became besieged with medical faxes from all over the Tampa Bay area.

She started calling the pharmacies to let them know. Some were sympathetic and fixed the mistake. Others, she said, were rude and told her to change her phone number.

One pharmacist, David Shek, told her it was likely a violation of federal law for health care providers to release information to others without permission.

"It's annoying to say the least," said Shek, who now works in New York. At worst, he said, "it's dangerous" as patients might not get the treatment they need because their paperwork doesn't go to the right place.

Reed said she called the doctor's office, but the faxes kept coming.

She even called the state Health Department. People there referred the case to a staffer, but Reed says they say they can't do anything.

The privacy rule, part of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA), is federal and enforced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Civil Rights. Representatives did not return messages from the St. Petersburg Times.

The agency's website says a person who knowingly obtains or discloses individually identifiable health information in violation of the law faces a fine of $50,000 and up to one-year imprisonment. The criminal penalties increase to $100,000 and up to five years imprisonment if the wrongful conduct involves false pretenses, and to $250,000 and up to 10 years imprisonment if the wrongful conduct involves the intent to sell, transfer, or use individually identifiable health information for commercial advantage, personal gain, or malicious harm.

Reed continues trying to trace each fax as it arrives. Sometimes all she has is a sender's fax number. She uses the computer to do reverse lookups and find phone numbers. Some faxes take her more than an hour to deal with.

The problem has gotten so bad that her husband, Ernie, can't even use the answering machine for his lawn maintenance business. "The time gets eaten up with fax noise," he said.

It also consumes the Reeds' fax paper and ink. The couple is forced to rely on cell phones for most of their communication.

Reed knows these are not her responsibility. But the former Air Force medic says she feels a sense of duty.

"I don't want someone to be in danger," she said. What if she goes on vacation and someone's prescription refill order or treatment request comes in?

The problem might be solved. Doctors At Home got absorbed by Access Health Care about a year ago.

Dr. Singh Pariksith, the company's medical director said the company would resolve the matter by sending a memo to the companies.

"These pharmacies put the number in their computer and it's very difficult to get out," he said. "We will follow up one by one."

Reed said she suggested a memo last year but no one bothered.

"It could have been so simple," she said. "But I guess people who answered the phone were busy and they didn't have time to do it."

Wrong number sends personal medical information to family's fax 04/30/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 30, 2010 8:30pm]
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