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April 21 — A New York hospital “blatantly violated” federal patient privacy rules when it allowed an ABC news crew unfettered access to its facility, a government agency said April 21.
The Department of Health and Human Services' Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced that it reached a $2.2 million settlement with New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
The agency alleged the facility violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) by disclosing two patients' protected health information (PHI) during the filming of “NY Med,” an ABC television series, without first obtaining the patients' consent. The hospital permitted the crew to film a dying patient and another person in significant distress, even after a medical professional urged them to stop, an OCR press release about the settlement said.
HIPAA was designed specifically to prohibit the disclosure of a patient's protected health information, including images, in these types of circumstances, the OCR said.
The incident gave rise to a hue and cry when it became public knowledge, and it resulted in a state hospital association's adoption of a policy banning filming in facilities without the patients' knowledge. Recently, New York's highest court reinstated civil claims brought against the hospital by the family of a patient whose death was filmed and shown on the series, saying the family had stated a claim that the hospital violated its duty to keep the patient's information confidential (63 HCDR, 4/1/16).
The ABC television network is no longer a part of the family's lawsuit and isn't a party to the OCR settlement.
Certain entities, including hospitals, are required by HIPAA to keep patient information confidential. These entities received “an important message” as a result of the settlement, OCR Director Jocelyn Samuels said in the release. “OCR will not permit covered entities to compromise their patients' privacy by allowing news or television crews to film the patients without their authorization,” she said.
According to the release, the OCR also found that the hospital effectively created “an environment where PHI could not be protected from impermissible disclosure to the ABC film crew and staff.”
In addition to the monetary settlement, the OCR said it will monitor the hospital for two years as part of the agreement, in order to ensure the facility remains compliant with its HIPAA obligations. The full terms are spelled out in an agreed-upon resolution agreement and corrective action plan.
New York-Presbyterian said in statement e-mailed to Bloomberg BNA April 21 that it reached the agreement with the OCR “in order to bring closure to OCR's review process.”
The facility's “participation in the ABC News documentary program ‘NY Med' was intended to educate the public and provide insight into the complexities of medical care and the daily challenges faced by our dedicated and compassionate medical professionals,” it said.
“This program, and the others that preceded it, garnered critical acclaim, and raised the public’s consciousness of important public health issues, including organ transplantation and donation. It also vividly depicted how our emergency department medical team works tirelessly every day to save patients’ lives,” the hospital said.
New York-Presbyterian maintained in its statement that “the filming of this documentary program did not violate the HIPAA Privacy Rule.”
The settlement should put facilities on notice that they need to be careful, because the agency is watching, Michael F. Schaff, chair of the corporate and health-care departments at Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer PA, in Woodbridge, N.J., told Bloomberg BNA April 21. He noted that the settlement was for a significant sum and that it came about relatively quickly.
Schaff, who didn't represent the hospital, said the timing of the settlement suggests that New York-Presbyterian just wanted to put the incident behind it and put an end to the negative publicity it has received as a result.
The lessons, he said, are that a hospital shouldn't just go along with a request to film on its premises, and should monitor carefully any filming it allows in order to protect patient privacy.
To contact the reporter on this story: Mary Anne Pazanowski in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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The resolution agreement and corrective action plan is at http://src.bna.com/eil.
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