Couple Sues McAlester Hospital Over Alleged Snooping and Impermissible Disclosure

Following the accidental drowning of their adopted son, Denise and Wayne Russell were contacted by the child’s birth mother who made threats against their family.

The phone call from the birth mother came shortly after their son was admitted to McAlester Regional Health Center following a tragic swimming pool accident. Their 2-year old child had fallen into the pool after the gate to the pool area had been accidentally left open. The parents administered CPR at the scene until the paramedics arrived and the child was rushed to hospital where he was later confirmed to have died.

Shortly after their son died, the Russells received the telephone call from the birth mother. When asked how she knew about the accident and death of the child, she confirmed that she had been informed by the hospital. The birth month screamed at the Russells and made multiple threats, according to Denise Russell, including a threat to kill their other son. The situation became so bad that a protective order was filed against their son’s birth mother.

The Russells had taken care of their adopted son Keon since he was two weeks old and finalized the adoption in July 2015. Under the terms of the adoption, the birth mother terminated all of her parental rights. Even so, an employee at the hospital contacted the birth mother to alert her to the death of her son.

In the lawsuit the Russells claim that as a result of the impermissible disclosure of their son’s health information they have experienced “extreme emotional distress” from having to deal with the birth mother. The couple are seeking $150,000 in damages.

The call to the birth mother was made by an employee of the hospital, although according to the lawsuit that was not the only privacy violation and HIPAA violation that occurred. The lawsuit alleges multiple hospital workers accessed Keon’s medical records without authorization including workers in the hospital cafeteria.

One worker in the food service section had been legitimately been given access to the hospital’s EHR system. Access was required to check dietary requirements of patients and room numbers. It is alleged that that worker had been instructed to write down her login credentials on a sticky note and post them on a computer to allow others to be able to access the EHR system. Those credentials were allegedly used by other food service workers to access the child’s records, including labor and delivery department records.

An examination of the access logs showed that Keon’s medical records were accessed multiple times on the day of admission to the hospital using the food service worker’s credentials, even though the worker wasn’t on duty that day.

If the allegations are true, there have been multiple HIPAA violations, which have undoubtedly caused emotional distress for the parents; however, there is no private cause of action in HIPAA. It is not possible for an individual to sue a hospital for a HIPAA violation. Only state attorneys general and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights are permitted to bring legal action against healthcare organizations for HIPAA violations under federal law.

Instead, the lawsuit alleges the hospital was negligent for failing to protect Keon Russell’s medical records and meet HIPAA requirements and its own internal policies. It has also been alleged that Oklahoma’s medical records statutes were also been violated. A jury trial is expected to commence in January 2019.

Author: Steve Alder has many years of experience as a journalist, and comes from a background in market research. He is a specialist on legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA. Steve holds a B.Sc. from the University of Liverpool.