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Sheriff’s employee accused of illegally accessing confidential medical records

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Jefferson County is investigating an allegation that a Sheriff’s Department employee illegally accessed confidential records at Samaritan Medical Center.

If Samaritan’s allegation is true, a registered nurse working for the Sheriff’s Department accessed noninmate confidential medical records in violation of federal law and opened the county to the possibility of a civil lawsuit.

The breach was caught by a regular audit conducted in December by Samaritan’s compliance department. Access to records is not restricted by any kind of software firewall. Instead, audits are conducted weekly and can be done more often if necessary to discourage people from breaking the law.

“A red flag went up,” Samaritan spokeswoman Krista A. Kittle said. “We looked into it further and that’s where we recognized that this R.N., who works for the office of corrections and had access to the medical records to check the status of inmates, was actually, while she was in there, looking at other patient records.”

Health care professionals at some county government agencies have access to the electronic records of patients. The nurse was authorized only to view the records of inmates under her care at the county jail. Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, no one is permitted access to the records of patients who are not directly in their care unless they have written authorization to do so.

“We do know whose records were accessed and the relationship there but we can’t disclose that at this point,” Ms. Kittle said. “We are required to let the patient know that a breach occurred within 30 days of our knowledge of the breach. The patient will be notified that this occurred. Any action they may wish to take from that point is certainly in their hands.”

The nurse would have been fully aware of what she was doing and the consequences of her actions, Ms. Kittle said, because to access the records, the nurse would have had to sign a confidentiality agreement, which outlined the law and the actions that would result from any violation.

Sheriff John P. Burns could not be reached for comment Monday night. Other county officials said they had little knowledge of the situation.

“I really know very little of this situation. In terms of what we may or may not do, that’s going to require some conversations with both our attorney’s office and certainly our Sheriff’s Department,” County Administrator Robert F. Haggemann III said.

Ms. Kittle said that it was her understanding that verbal counseling of the nurse took place, but that other disciplinary actions were at the discretion of the Sheriff’s Department.

“She was not our employee. We notified her supervisor at the sheriff’s office. He came in actually and looked at exactly some of the documentation that we had and said that he would address it with this R.N.,” Ms. Kittle said.

Typically, a breach of this nature would be, at the very least, grounds for termination, Ms. Kittle said. The employer would also be obliged to turn the matter over to the state Education Department, which licenses registered nurses to practice in New York. The department would conduct its own investigation to determine whether additional disciplinary action should be taken.

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