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After HIPAA complaint, Monroeville officials review emergency-alert system

| Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012, 8:57 p.m.

In the wake of an allegation that personal medical information was disclosed by the former police chief, Monroeville officials are taking a closer look at who receives emergency-alert information from the dispatch center via texts and emails.

Assistant police Chief Steve Pascarella filed a written complaint that accused former Chief George Polnar of passing along details about an emergency medical call to someone who wasn't involved in the emergency.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was asked in August to investigate the situation.

Polnar retired as chief in 2010 but remained on a list of first responders who receive direct alerts of fire and medical emergencies.

When officials realized the first-responders list was outdated, Polnar and at least 10 other names were purged from the list, and direct texts and emails were put on hold for about a week as fire departments submitted new contact lists, said current police Chief Doug Cole.

Current first responders were added to an updated communications process that eliminates the municipality as a go-between in alerting individual responders, Cole said.

Fire and medical first responders in Pitcairn and at Forbes Regional Hospital in Monroeville have yet to be added to the list.

Though officials agree that the list should be updated from time to time, they maintain that the situation did not violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), as is alleged in the complaint.

The information that Polnar is accused of releasing included a patient's age, gender and address, but Monroeville fire Chief Ron Harvey said that information is broadcast over open radio frequencies.

“There's nothing that comes over (the direct messaging) that's any different than what any person in ‘scanner land' hears every day,” Harvey said.

“He was just trying to be a good friend and tell his neighbor. In the grand scheme of things, who cares?”

Polnar has not responded to The Times Express' request for comment.

Pascarella referred all questions to solicitor Bruce Dice.

After researching HIPAA and past legal documents, Dice said that no laws were broken.

“The critical component of this is the patient's name,” Dice said.

“If we were giving out the patient's name, I would have difficulty with that. But when a name is not printed or put out over the air, it's clear this person is not identified.”

Cole said the department has yet to get a call or a visit from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Harvey said it's tough to maintain a list of active responders due to the nature of a municipal fire department.

Most are volunteers, and some are college students who move on to other things.

Harvey said that among his list of duties, including emergency response, equipment testing and training, the contact list is somewhere near the bottom, as far as priorities are concerned.

“The paging list doesn't hurt anybody,” Harvey said.

“The last thing on my mind today is whether that guy is off the dispatch list.”

Kyle Lawson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8755, or klawson@tribweb.com.

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