Baptist Health alerts patients to ID theft

July 2, 2008

Baptist Health has sent letters warning about 1,800 patients that the hospital system's records may have been breached, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has learned.

The notification came after the arrest of a Baptist Health employee at a Wal-Mart store on 25 counts of financial identity fraud.

The letters, mailed last week, follow the firing of the woman in early June. North Little Rock police say Tamara Hill, 30, of that city worked at Baptist Health Medical Center-North Little Rock in the emergency department.

Hill, an admissions clerk, was arrested May 30 at the Wal-Mart at 12001 Maumelle Blvd. in North Little Rock by North Little Rock police.

Ebony Flowers, 25, also of North Little Rock, was arrested at the store the same day on three counts of identity fraud, police reports say. Flowers was listed in a police report as a janitor for the North Little Rock School District.

Baptist Health recorded more than 950,000 patient visits systemwide in 2007, a number that includes repeat visits.

Mark Lowman, spokesman for the Little Rock-based Baptist Health system, confirmed that the system fired the employee after notification of the arrest.

Flowers was also charged with one count of marijuana possession, police reports say.

Police reports say the women used a victim's personal information to obtain temporary Wal-Mart "account authorization numbers" - credit cards, essentially - used to buy Wal-Mart gift cards.

The victim reported to police that he had not authorized the transactions, the reports show.

When contacted by the Democrat-Gazette, the same victim confirmed he was a Baptist Health patient. He expressed appreciation of the handling of the case by the system and by the North Little Rock police.

Among the items found during a search connected with the arrest of Hill was personal information for 24 other people, including "screen shots" - printouts showing the exact appearance of the images on a computer screen - that showed victims' personal information. Also found were four Wal-Mart gift cards and $ 1, 490 in cash, police reports show.

Police found a small bag of marijuana on Flowers, according to the reports. In a search connected with her arrest, they also discovered a. 25-caliber magazine with six bullets, as well as a receipt for four of the gift cards and information on three-identity theft victims.

An investigation continues, said Sgt. Terry Kuykendall, a spokesman for the North Little Rock Police Department. The U. S. Secret Service is helping with the investigation.

The June 24 letter from Baptist Health to patients stated: "Due to a breach of our information systems security policies, there is a possibility that some personal information, such as your name, address, date of birth, Social Security number, and reason for coming to Baptist Health, was accessed by an unauthorized person." No information in the patient's "medical records" and no information about the patient's diagnosis or prognosis was accessed, the letter said.

But while no "medical record" information was accessed, the letter mentioned the patient's "reason for coming" to the system possibly was accessed. Lowman said a reason stated by a patient using the system isn.t considered medical information because the reason is a layman's explanation, not one from a medical professional.

He said the breach wouldn't violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.

But Pam Dixon, executive director of the San Diego-based World Privacy Forum, a privacy advocacy group, thinks all the information mentioned in the letter falls under HIPAA.

"It doesn't matter that [it's not ] a prognosis or diagnosis," she said.

Dixon found the system.s letter lacking in several respects, such as clarifying the exact meaning of a "reason for coming to Baptist Health." The letter also should have mentioned when and for how long the breach occurred, she said.

"Almost all breach letters have that," Dixon added.

Several weeks passed before patients were notified by the letter. Baptist Health sent the letter after it learned more of the scope of the police investigation and audited what Hill had access to, according to Lowman.

Dixon said Baptist Health should have offered in the letter to set up free credit monitoring for victims. Nothing made clear late Tuesday whether Baptist Health is offering such a free service or for how many people.

Lowman said the health system continually conducts audits to know which staff members are accessing what information, and whether or not the access is appropriate.

"We're always looking to provide better audits and better oversight of private, confidential and protected information," Lowman said.

Among Baptist Health.s many operations statewide is Baptist Health Medical Center hospital in Little Rock and hospitals in Arkadelphia, Heber Springs and North Little Rock.

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