UCLA settles after Selling Secrets of the Stars

SRxA’s Word on Health brings you news of yet another big payout – only this time it’s not pharma that’s paying the price.  In a settlement reached with federal regulators last week, UCLA agreed to pay an $865,000 for potential violations of federal privacy laws after hospital employees were accused of snooping into the medical records of celebrity patients.

The investigation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed that workers repeatedly accessed patients’ electronic health records between 2005 and 2008. In 2008, California Department of Public Health officials announced results of their own investigation into the privacy breaches and found that UCLA hospital workers inappropriately accessed records of 1,041 patients since 2003.

The hospital later disciplined 165 employees through firings, suspensions and warnings and at least two former UCLA employees have faced criminal charges for medical privacy violations.

Former administrative specialist Lawanda Jackson, 50, pleaded guilty to selling information to the National Enquirer from the files of Britney Spears, Farrah Fawcett and other high-profile celebrities. She died from complications of breast cancer before she could be sentenced.

Former medical school researcher Huping Zhou was sentenced to four months in federal prison and fined $2,000 for reading the confidential medical files of co-workers and celebrities such as Drew Barrymore, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Hanks.  Zhou, a Chinese national, claimed he didn’t know it was a violation of U.S. law to peep into the files.

These headline-grabbing breaches led California legislators to pass a bill boosting the maximum fine for privacy breaches at health facilities from $25,000 to $250,000.

UCLA Hospital System which includes Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical CenterSanta Monica-UCLA Medical Center and Orthopedic Hospital, and the UCLA Medical Group, a network of primary and specialty care satellite offices, has agreed to report to a federal monitor on the implementation of its corrective plan over the next three years.

In a statement Thursday, UCLA said it has taken steps over the past three years to retrain staff and strengthen its computer systems.

Coming the same week that the British tabloid News of the World  was caught hacking into the phones of celebrities, government officials and murder victims, a scandal that has led to the demise of the popular Sunday newspaper and the public disgrace of media magnate Rupert Murdoch, UCLA should consider themselves lucky.