CHARLOTTE, N.C. — At least 1,200 people who sought medical help at Mecklenburg County clinics had their private information exposed in a breach that could bring massive fines and policy changes to the municipality, officials announced Tuesday.
County officials mistakenly gave information to two media outlets Monday in response to public records requests about the Health Department's failure to notify women of abnormal Pap smear results. Channel 9 immediately notified county officials upon discovering the information on a compact disc.
Officials said the information did not go to anyone beside the two media outlets. However, commissioners and county leaders said the incident raised serious questions about the process by which health workers share sensitive information.
"I am absolutely speechless with anger about how something like this could happen," said said Dena Diorio, Mecklenburg County Manager.
County officials made attorneys and information technology staff members available to answer questions from commissioners Tuesday. Due to the size of the breach, the county will have to report the information to the Department of Health and Human Services within 60 days.
Officials also plan to begin contacting patients whose information was released. Patients, who Channel 9 is not identifying because of the sensitive nature of the story, said they were devasted to learn they were affected.
"I wouldn't think that my information would get out like that," one woman said. "I am a little bit [scared]."
The breach will likely lead to fines since the information violated the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Democratic County Commissioner Trevor Fuller projected the county could face $5 million in fines.
"I'm not satisfied with this process," Fuller said. "It is not sufficient."
Staff plans to craft an action plan, which will be presented to commissioners, to ensure health information isn't released again. Diorio also said the county will immediately cease sending private information in emailed spreadsheets.
The accidental release of information was the second time county officials requested Channel 9 return a disc with public records Monday. Officials said records given to Channel 9 earlier this month contained a name that should have not been released.
County Commissioner Jim Puckett also said that he had raised concerns about a past public records response that contained information violating HIPAA.
"We had a relatively small problem that has escalated into a large one," Puckett said
Health department statement released on Monday:
On Monday, March 27, Mecklenburg County inadvertently released information that contained HIPAA protected information to two media outlets as a result of an open records request.
The County has contacted the outlets to recall the information and is confident that no protected information has been released to the public.
Mecklenburg County takes protecting private information very seriously and has multiple levels of security to keep this from occurring.
That system failed in this instance, and the County will closely review the policy and procedures used to release information and to make sure this type of information is not released in the future.
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