Violating privacy law, health department discards personal information of people applying for benefits in public trash bin
By Michele Nelson, reporter, Payson Roundup, Arizona – March 9, 2012
Gila County Health Department staff dumped confidential personal information that included copies of drivers’ licenses and birth certificates into a public recycling bin found by two Payson residents on Feb. 29.
“The fact this is happening is inexcusable,” said Supervisor Tommie Martin.
The health department reported in a press release this week that an employee threw two bankers-style boxes containing 12 files of internal documentation into a recycle container used by other businesses in Payson.
The employee has been reprimanded and retrained, said county officials.
County officials have not confirmed how many individual’s records were compromised, but the files reportedly included hundreds of pages.
County officials said they’ve launched an investigation but have not yet revealed how the confidential information ended up in boxes of recycling material an employee routinely dumped in the trash. County officials have denied reports that confidential records were discarded at least twice.
Martin insisted the county would change its procedures.
“In this day and age, nobody should have to worry about his or her identification getting out,” she said.
The incident violated federal law protecting the confidentiality of health care records, acknowledged Health Director Michael O’Driscoll.
Since the incident was reported, county officials have moved the recycling bin to a secure location to examine each piece of paper to guarantee all records are found, said Martin.
O’Driscoll said the files were mixed in with outdated pamphlets and material from the federal WIC (Women, Children and Infant) program.
WIC provides grants to states for food, health care and nutrition education to low-income mothers of children under the age of 5. The states then have county health departments administer the program.
O’Driscoll said the health department is investigating exactly how the records found their way into the boxes of recyclable material without being shredded first.
“We moved immediately to put systems in place to stop distribution of files,” said O’Driscoll.
Because the files had to do with personal medical information, they are subject to HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) security regulations and so should have been disposed of as required by federal law.
In its press release the health department wrote, “Gila County Health Department maintains extremely strict and cautionary protocols for confidential information, which includes step-by-step measures for its storage, management, and destruction.”
O’Driscoll said each year health department employees go through training on how to properly dispose of confidential paperwork. Files are shredded and discarded after five years, only if they include inactivated clients.
Chamber of Commerce manager John Stanton, who shares the recycling bin with the county office, saw a young mother with a baby, contacted by a Phoenix television station through her information found in the bin, being interviewed.
The incident came to light after people who found the discarded records and called Channel 15. Channel 15 reported that Payson residents Lynda Perkins and her daughter-in-law discovered the discarded documents outside the county health department office located next to the courthouse as they searched for coupons. The Payson women called the Phoenix TV station.
On camera, WIC office employee Sherry Miller admitted to placing the files in the box.
However, O’Driscoll would not confirm the identity of the employee who discarded the records and added he bore the ultimate responsibility as director of the department.
Martin expressed remorse, “I can’t believe we did it,” she said, “I can only explain it as somebody unconsciously throwing it in a box. The weak link is in the strangest places.”