By Ed Schoenfeld
The American Civil Liberties of Alaska says a lawsuit it filed in Ketchikan could set new standards for medical privacy in Alaska. The group is suing the state to recover about four hundred records seized from a women’s health center during a criminal investigation. It says local police later revealed personal medical information. Police deny that’s the case.
ACLU Executive Director Jeffrey Mittman said that could open intimate details of the women’s lives to public scrutiny.
“In Alaska in particular, we expect and are guaranteed by our constitution a very robust right to privacy. And when government comes in and violates that right not only by improperly seeking information it’s not entitled to, but then not exercising its authority to protect that information, that’s a situation that we must, as the ACLU, seek to address,” he said.
A complaint filed in Ketchikan Superior Court says the records were seized during a January Medicaid fraud investigation into a clinic called A Woman’s Place. The ACLU says information taken described gynecological services, reports of sexual abuse and testing for sexually transmitted diseases.
ACLU Attorney Tom Stenson said Ketchikan’s Police Department assisted Alaska Medicaid Fraud Control Unit staff.
“They did look through the files and we did have several complaints that women were later confronted by officers saying “I know what illness you have” or that members of their family were confronted,” he said.
The ACLU says in one case, an officer told a woman her mother had a sexually transmitted disease.
The city contests the claims.
“I remain very confident, as does the chief of police, that no Ketchikan police officer has acted improperly,” said Municipal Attorney Stephen Bradford.
He said officials talked to the officers involved in the search. They were told that medical information was not to be discussed. And Bradford said the city’s investigation shows it wasn’t.
“Each of the officers involved has assured us that they did not in any way divulge that information. And frankly, the city would take very seriously if any officer did act in that manner,” he said.
The ACLU says the seizure was overly broad and included documents outside the scope of the investigation. It also says the records could be introduced as trial evidence if the clinic owner is charged or sued by the state. And that could make them accessible to the public. The organization also claims women treated at the clinic have been denied access to their own medical records, which they need for further treatment.
The suit seeks immediate return of the records. The ACLU’s Stenson says the group also wants changes in the state’s Medicaid fraud unit’s evidence-gathering system.
“There need to be more strict regulations from the court about how medical records are seized and handled. We want to make sure that where search warrants are approved for the unit that they’re very narrowly tailored to a specific investigation and that they’re not a big fishing expedition over the course of six months into hundreds of medical records,” he said.
The state is not responding in detail to the suit’s allegations. But Law Department spokesman Bill McAllister says women whose files were seized can get copies from the state through their medical providers.
The suit does not include Ketchikan police. ACLU Director Mittman says that’s because his group and the city are working on an out of court agreement.
“When we addressed the situation with the city of Ketchikan, they immediately understood what had happened and why in a town like Ketchikan where it’s very small and everybody knows everybody else it’s highly problematic. They have entered in discussions with us and we are hopeful that by the end of the summer or by the fall we will have come to an agreement with them on appropriate regulations and procedures to ensure something like this never happens again,” he said.
He says attempts to reach a similar agreement with the state failed.
Law Department spokesman McAllister says the parties came to terms on many points, but the state felt the rest went too far. He and Ketchikan’s attorney also say the ACLU did not provide the details needed to follow up on accusations against the police department.
The suit was filed on behalf of one named and eight unnamed women. The ACLU is not representing the clinic or its owner, and is not contesting the state’s right to investigate Medicaid fraud allegations. So far, no charges have been filed in this case.
A Copy of the Complaint can be read here.