Hospital accused of faxing man’s HIV diagnosis to his employer

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A $2.5 million negligence lawsuit has been filed against Mount Sinai-St. Luke’s Hospital by a man who says they disclosed his HIV status to his employer.

The court documents list “John Doe” as the claimant. According to the lawsuit, filed Sept. 9, “Doe” says one of the hospital’s clinics, Spencer Cox Clinic, faxed his medical records to his employer’s mail-room in 2014, after he requested his records in order to send them to another clinic. He says he specifically instructed hospital staffers to mail the documents to a post office box.

Speaking to the New York Daily News, the claimant reportedly said, “My most intimate and personal secrets were broadcast for anyone who happened to be walking by my office fax machine. For years now, I have been struggling to cope with how my life was changed by the unbelievably careless act of the people who I trusted with my care.”

The claimant had been diagnosed with HIV in 2014, just a few months before the incident, reportedly. The files, which indicated his HIV-positive status, ended up with his supervisor. The claimant felt forced to quit his job and to tell family and friends about his diagnosis before he was ready to do so.

“I simply could not stay with that company,” he reportedly said. “I was in a constant state of apprehension about whether or not a colleague or supervisor was looking at me differently because they knew about my diagnosis. The paranoia and anxiety was too much.”

Mount Sinai-St. Luke’s Hospital called the mistake “egregious” and a “breach” of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPPA.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the HIPAA Privacy Rule “establishes national standards to protect individuals’ medical records and other personal health information.” It applies to health plans, health care clearinghouses, and health care providers which conduct “certain health care transactions electronically.”

The hospital has reportedly paid a $387,000 fine to the HHS after it launched an investigation based on the complaint. They have refused to settle with the claimant, however, according to his attorney, Jeffrey Lichtman.

“It’s bad enough to be diagnosed with HIV, but to have his health records sent to his place of work for everyone to see compounds a very difficult situation,” Lichtman reportedly said. “His family was not aware of his status and everyone at work was.”

Information about HIV, using frank terms, according to HIV.gov:

HIV is a virus spread through certain body fluids that attacks the body’s immune system, specifically the CD4 cells, often called T cells. Over time, HIV can destroy so many of these cells that the body can’t fight off infections and disease. These special cells help the immune system fight off infections. Untreated, HIV reduces the number of CD4 cells (T cells) in the body. This damage to the immune system makes it harder and harder for the body to fight off infections and some other diseases. Opportunistic infections or cancers take advantage of a very weak immune system and signal that the person has AIDS. Learn more about the stages of HIV and how to know whether you’re infected.

What Is HIV?

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It is the virus that can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS, if not treated. Unlike some other viruses, the human body can’t get rid of HIV completely, even with treatment. So once you get HIV, you have it for life.

HIV attacks the body’s immune system, specifically the CD4 cells (T cells), which help the immune system fight off infections. Untreated, HIV reduces the number of CD4 cells (T cells) in the body, making the person more likely to get other infections or infection-related cancers. Over time, HIV can destroy so many of these cells that the body can’t fight off infections and disease. These opportunistic infections or cancers take advantage of a very weak immune system and signal that the person has AIDS, the last stage of HIV infection.

No effective cure currently exists, but with proper medical care, HIV can be controlled. The medicine used to treat HIV is called antiretroviral therapy or ART. If taken the right way, every day, this medicine can dramatically prolong the lives of many people infected with HIV, keep them healthy, and greatly lower their chance of infecting others. Before the introduction of ART in the mid-1990s, people with HIV could progress to AIDS in just a few years. Today, someone diagnosed with HIV and treated before the disease is far advanced can live nearly as long as someone who does not have HIV.

How Is HIV Transmitted?

You can get or transmit HIV only through specific activities. Most commonly, people get or transmit HIV through sexual behaviors and needle or syringe use.

Only certain body fluids—blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk—from a person who has HIV can transmit HIV. These fluids must come in contact with a mucous membrane or damaged tissue or be directly injected into the bloodstream (from a needle or syringe) for transmission to occur. Mucous membranes are found inside the rectum, vagina, penis, and mouth.

In the United States, HIV is spread mainly by

  • Having anal or vaginal sex with someone who has HIV without using a condom or taking medicines to prevent or treat HIV.
  • For the HIV-negative partner, receptive anal sex (bottoming) is the highest-risk sexual behavior, but you can also get HIV from insertive anal sex (topping).
  • Either partner can get HIV through vaginal sex, though it is less risky for getting HIV than receptive anal sex.
  • Sharing needles or syringes, rinse water, or other equipment (works) used to prepare drugs for injection with someone who has HIV. HIV can live in a used needle up to 42 days depending on temperature and other factors.
  • Less commonly, HIV may be spread from mother to child during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding. Although the risk can be high if a mother is living with HIV and not taking medicine, recommendations to test all pregnant women for HIV and start HIV treatment immediately have lowered the number of babies who are born with HIV.
  • By being stuck with an HIV-contaminated needle or other sharp object. This is a risk mainly for health care workers.

In extremely rare cases, HIV has been transmitted by

  • Oral sex. In general, there’s little to no risk of getting HIV from oral sex. But transmission of HIV, though extremely rare, is theoretically possible if an HIV-positive man ejaculates in his partner’s mouth during oral sex. To learn more about how to lower your risk, see CDC’s Oral Sex and HIV Risk.
  • Receiving blood transfusions, blood products, or organ/tissue transplants that are contaminated with HIV. This was more common in the early years of HIV, but now the risk is extremely small because of rigorous testing of the US blood supply and donated organs and tissues.
  • Eating food that has been pre-chewed by an HIV-infected person. The contamination occurs when infected blood from a caregiver’s mouth mixes with food while chewing. The only known cases are among infants.
  • Being bitten by a person with HIV. Each of the very small number of documented cases has involved severe trauma with extensive tissue damage and the presence of blood. There is no risk of transmission if the skin is not broken.
  • Contact between broken skin, wounds, or mucous membranes and HIV-infected blood or blood-contaminated body fluids.
  • Deep, open-mouth kissing if both partners have sores or bleeding gums and blood from the HIV-positive partner gets into the bloodstream of the HIV-negative partner. HIV is not spread through saliva.

Can I Get HIV from Casual Contact, Using a Public Space, or from a Mosquito Bite?

No. HIV is NOT transmitted:

  • By hugging, shaking hands, sharing toilets, sharing dishes, or closed-mouth or “social” kissing with someone who is HIV-positive.
  • Through saliva, tears, or sweat that is not mixed with the blood of an HIV-positive person.
  • By mosquitoes, ticks or other blood-sucking insects.
  • Through the air.

As noted above, only certain body fluids—blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk—from an HIV-infected person can transmit HIV. Most commonly, people get or transmit HIV through sexual behaviors and needle or syringe use. Babies can also get HIV from an HIV-positive mother during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding.

What Is AIDS?

AIDS is the most severe phase of HIV infection. People with AIDS have such badly damaged immune systems that they get an increasing number of severe illnesses, called opportunistic infections.

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