Houston hospital to pay $2.4M for releasing patient’s name

HOUSTON (AP) — A Houston hospital has agreed to pay a $2.4 million fine and adopt corrective action after being accused by the federal government of improperly disclosing a patient’s name to news media.

The settlement was announced Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Houston Chronicle reported.

It stems from a September 2015 incident in which Memorial Hermann Health System reported a 44-year-old woman to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office for presenting a fake ID. She had been living in the U.S. illegally for over a decade.

As the story gained attention from the press, the hospital released her name in a news release about the incident without her consent. Hospital staff members were required under federal law to have her sign a consent form.

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Linn Freedman, a Rhode Island-based lawyer who specializes in medical privacy, said that even if a patient’s name has been shared widely in the press, it doesn’t mean a health care provider can share it.

“The entity still has to follow the rules that apply to it, which is the privacy rule under HIPAA,” she said.

The incident drew attention from both sides of the immigration debate. Activists staged protests and raised money to pay for the woman’s legal defense. Gov. Greg Abbott cited the incident on Twitter as an example of the state rightly cracking down on illegal immigration.

Under the settlement, the health system admitted to no wrongdoing. At the time of the news release, Memorial Hermann said it is not system policy to ask about a patient’s immigration status and that staff had only contacted authorities to confirm the woman’s identity.

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The fine will be paid to the Health and Human Services Department to fund future Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act enforcement.