Hospital billing error exposes private medical information

The information contained on the Houston Methodist account statements constitute medical records which are subject to federal privacy standards

By Joel Eisenbaum - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - Houston Methodist Hospital will take unspecified "corrective action" following a Local 2 investigation. Our report uncovered a billing error that put the private medical information of four people into the hands of a stranger.

The compromised private information of those patients included: names, addresses, hospital account numbers, dates of procedures, types of procedures, costs of procedures, medications and insurance providers.

The information contained on the Houston Methodist account statements constitute medical records which are subject to federal privacy standards.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, commonly referred to as HIPAA, prohibits unauthorized release of any of private medical information.

The fines for "accidental" violations can range from $100 to $50,000 per violation.

"How many other people have received information on other patients? Someone might have my information," said the man who received the information and contacted Local 2 Investigates.

That man asked us not to reveal his identity, but did show us the paperwork he said he received via mail.

It is unclear if similar billing errors have happened before or since the incident.

"It doesn't make sense. You have people that are supposed to be qualified at doing this type of work," former Houston Methodist patient, Dora Payne, 79, said.

Payne was one of the four patients whose information was revealed to a stranger.

"This is unacceptable, this is totally awful," Patsy Southern, Payne's daughter, said.

Healthcare providers are required to "self-report" privacy breaches.

Stefanie Asin, director of communications for Houston Methodist sent Local 2 Investigates the following response:

"Houston Methodist is very serious and diligent about protecting our patients' privacy. Patient privacy is paramount to us and if there are any questions about a patient's privacy we will address these concerns.

After learning the names of the patients Monday, we immediately called them to apologize for including their bills in another patient's mailing.

Typically when a patient requests an itemized bill, that statement is either faxed or printed and mailed to the patient.  We have determined in this case the extra documents were inadvertently stuffed into one envelope. We deeply regret this happened and we've taken corrective action. Any patient contacted by Channel 2 in relation to this story, may contact us at 832-667-5926. "

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