Higher education

University of Iowa worker fired for violating privacy law

Pregnancy test results of athlete's girlfriend were discussed

University of Iowa students walk past the College of Business on the T. Anne Cleary Walkway on campus in Iowa City on Thursday, December 18, 2014. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
University of Iowa students walk past the College of Business on the T. Anne Cleary Walkway on campus in Iowa City on Thursday, December 18, 2014. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

A University of Iowa student health employee was fired and a second staffer disciplined after discussing pregnancy test results of the girlfriend of a “well-known athlete.”

The university considered it a violation of the federal patient privacy law known as Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. The 1996 law protects patient privacy and confidentiality, and hospitals are required to track and report violations.

The unidentified athlete was in the waiting room while his girlfriend visited the student health center in the Westlawn building for a pregnancy test on Dec. 31, according to documents obtained through an open records request.

Kathryn Trump of Solon, who worked as a medical assistant for the university for 14 years and had received annual privacy training, said in front of at least one other employee she hoped the woman was happy with the positive test results.

Testimony heard

“I said I hope it was a happy situation,” Trump testified during an unemployment hearing conducted by telephone on April 21. “That age population — we deal with students — it is probably not something they hope happen to them when they are trying to study and start a career. That’s why I made the comment I made because I hope they are happy.”

A second employee, a clerk referred to only as Beth, upon hearing the comment, approached two medical assistants for more information.

On the same day, Trump looked into the woman’s medical history at least twice more than she needed, accessing information about past visits and medication, according to the case files.

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UI uses an algorithm to determine the severity of HIPAA violations and what level of discipline is required, Constance Wagner, nurse manager of student health and wellness, testified on March 24.

On Jan. 12, Beth was disciplined, and Trump was fired for violating HIPAA, according to the testimony and files.

Trump, who declined to comment when reached by phone, testified she did not intentionally enter the patient charts and was only commenting out loud to herself because the athlete and her nephew had the same color hair.

Administrative Law Judge Julie Elder called Trump’s testimony “not persuasive” and sided with the university in denying benefits and ordering Trump to repay the $4,670 she’d already received. Trump has filed a grievance, which has not yet been resolved.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights oversees HIPAA violations and can assess fines and develop settlement agreements with hospitals. Under the law, health care workers are allowed to discuss patient medical information only with those needing to know to perform their job, and are only allowed to access patient charts necessary for work.

Previous complaints

UI spokesman Tom Moore said each HIPAA complaint is investigated.

Since 2010, UI has had 1,504 HIPAA complaints, according to records obtained through a records request. In most cases, the complaint turns out to be unfounded and most of the founded complaints are deemed inadvertent,

Of the complaints since 2010, 194 were founded. Of those, 20 were inappropriate, while 174 were inadvertent, according to UI records.

Moore said UI has never had to pay a fine or reach a settlement related to HIPAA. A couple of times a year, the civil rights office will issue a corrective action, which Moore said “falls into the category of general advice for all hospitals.”

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This is the second case since 2011 where student athletes seeking medical attention at the university had their privacy violated.

UI fired three and suspended two employees as part of an investigation into inappropriate access of patient records when 13 Hawkeye football players were hospitalized following an intense off-season workout.

Moore said no evidence suggests prominent people are at greater risk of having their privacy violated at UI, but when someone recognizable visits UI routinely reminds employees about HIPAA rules.

“We treat HIPAA complaints very seriously,” Moore said. “We obviously place a high emphasis on training in attempt to prevent violations of HIPAA, we strongly encourage faculty and staff to report complaints, and if discipline is warranted, discipline is applied.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Another Kathryn Jo Trump, of Mechanicsville, retired in good standing from the UI Department of Pediatrics in January 2014.

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