2 Investigators: Clinic’s Email Blunder Compromises Privacy Of AIDS Patient

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CHICAGO (CBS) — A local medical facility is in hot water with patients over a mass e-mail sent this summer.

CBS 2’s Dave Savini reports the e-mail blunder could actually be a critical violation of state and federal laws created to protect patient privacy.

The Northstar Healthcare clinic in Chicago specializes in treating people with HIV or AIDS. Information about its patients, including a man Savini interviewed, is supposed to be kept confidential.

The patient has AIDS and did not want to reveal his real name in this report.

But he’s angry and says Northstar violated his right to privacy when they sent a mass e-mail revealing his name, along with more than 170 other patients.

“I couldn’t believe that the people I entrusted in my health care, my private health care, that they violated my trust,” said Jack.  “Not only did they violate it for me, but they violated it for every patient at the clinic.”

The privacy breach is part of the danger in our digital age, says Ann Hilton Fisher, who heads the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago.

“It takes nothing,” she says. “You got a list and you hit the wrong button, and poof, it’s out there these days.”

Northstar sent the “dear patient” letter via e-mail with all the patient e-mail addresses clearly visible. Hilton Fisher says that can create “havoc” with peoples’ lives.

She says AIDS patients are often discriminated against by employers, landlords, and even friends can turn their backs when an HIV status is revealed.

“Confidentiality in the AIDS community is absolutely critical,” Hilton Fisher says.

Strict privacy laws were created so HIV and AIDS patients can get treatment without concern, she adds.  Hilton Fisher says someone at Northstar could face potential misdemeanor charges, while the clinic also faces potential civil damages starting at $2,000 per patient.

Marc Loveless from the Coalition for Justice and Respect says HIV and AIDS patients have been known to suffer discrimination and lose their jobs after employers find out their medical statuses. Loveless says an email that reveals information about patients can be “devastating.”

CBS 2 has been in contact with several people on this e-mail list, several of whom have AIDS. Others do not, but are receiving medical care at Northstar.

Northstar had no comment.

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