Healthcare News & Insights

Hepatitis C outbreak: Hospital fights to limit state’s access to patient data

The commotion over the hepatitis C outbreak at New Hampshire’s Exeter Hospital hasn’t ended with the arrest of the alleged infector, David Kwiatkowski. Now, the hospital’s fighting the state’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in court over how much access it should have to patient data.

The state’s HHS has requested to have broad access to the hospital’s medical records system to help its ongoing investigation of the hepatitis C outbreak. Reason: It believes more patients could be affected.

Jeanne Herrick, assistant attorney general, said in a Seacoastonline article, “Through the investigation, public health has gathered information that suggests there remains a risk … for potential infected patients in areas of the hospital other than the cardiac catheterization lab. And there is also information that needs to be gathered in respect to potential exposure in different areas of the hospital.”

The flip side

The hospital’s attorney, Scott O’Connell, said that both state and federal law prohibits the release of medical records unless specific criteria are met. And during the recent hearing at Merrimack Superior Court, it was agreed upon that state laws trump federal laws in large-scale public health investigations conducted by the state. Therefore, the state’s HHS only has access to a limited amount of data concerning patients’ medical records.

However, O’Connell stated that the hospital was willing to provide the state with some of the information, if the state gave the hospital the names, procedure dates and specific portions of the records they wanted to review.

The state refused, sticking to its position that it wants unlimited access to patient records.

Here comes the judge

When Judge Richard McNamara, who presided over the hearing, questioned the state as to why they didn’t just give the hospital the names of the patient records they wanted to see, Herrick said they had concern the records would be altered.

“We’re concerned those records wouldn’t appear in the same way they otherwise would’ve appeared,” she said. “Exeter Hospital is a business and there are good business reasons for them not to want any new patients (infected) or further investigation into this matter.”

The hospital shot back that it would never alter patient records to advance its business interests and that such actions are strictly prohibited by law.

While McNamara said there isn’t much case law to back the hospital’s argument to limit a state investigation, he also questioned why the state needed such broad access to patient data, adding the state may have to narrow its request.

No ruling was made at the two-hour hearing, but McNamara said he would issue a ruling as soon as he could.

No matter what the judge’s ruling, Exeter Hospital said in a prepared statement that it “is prepared to act in accordance with the law.”

We’ll keep you posted on the outcome.

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