Feds investigate complaint about health information allegedly released by Monroeville's Emergency Medical Services
Federal officials are investigating a complaint filed against Monroeville's Emergency Medical Services, but some who are familiar with the dispatch system say it's unlikely that sensitive health information was shared illegally.
In August, Assistant Police Chief Steve Pascarella accused Police Chief Doug Cole of creating unsecure universal usernames and passwords for the Monroeville 911 database, which enabled any individual in the know to anonymously access patient information protected by federal law, a letter from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said.
But a specialist who researches dispatch systems said based on the data-collection system used in Monroeville, it's unlikely the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act was violated.
Mark Rector, director of consulting services for Priority Dispatch of Salt Lake City, said the EMD/PROQA system that Monroeville uses includes preformatted questions to determine the patient's address, age, gender and medical information. There are no questions seeking personal information protected by law, he said.
“There's no reason to ask other additional, out-of-compliance questions,” he said.
The HIPAA complaint also cited an emergency dispatch last summer that was sent to former Police Chief George Polnar, who no longer works for the municipality. Monroeville Solicitor Bruce Dice said in October that based on his research, the information released in the dispatch was not specific enough to be covered by medical privacy laws.
“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 in October that the list of dispatch recipients was updated soon after he learned that Pascarella filed the complaint with the federal government.
Long-time Monroeville Paramedic Eric Poach said Monday that he and other emergency officials were using the 911 database referenced in the investigation to improve records management in Monroeville. He said he would be surprised if the investigation uncovers any wrongdoing.
“I would be stunned, because there's other case law about it, in terms of what is public information and what isn't,” he said.
The municipality has about two weeks to submit documents to the federal government. If officials fail to comply, the municipality could be fined up to $1.5 million, according to the letter from Health and Human Services.
The municipality hired legal counsel from Pittsburgh-based Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote to assist in gathering the information, said Municipal Manager Lynette McKinney. She referred questions about the cost of legal counsel to attorney William Bresnahan II, who couldn't be reached for comment.
According to the letter from federal officials, an individual found guilty of knowingly obtaining or disclosing an individual's identifiable health information “may face a criminal penalty of up to $50,000 and one year imprisonment.”
Cole and other first responders have said Pascarella was the person who created the generic usernames and passwords at the fire stations, which was one of his responsibilities as assistant police chief.
Pascarella said Monday that he couldn't comment on issues related to the ongoing investigation.
Some local officials and first responders have said the HIPAA complaint was politically motivated.
About six months after Pascarella filed the complaint, and prior to the start of the investigation, Cole was demoted to sergeant and Pascarella was promoted to chief. Council members Nick Gresock, Jim Johns and Steve Duncan, along with Mayor Greg Erosenko, voiced opposition to Cole's demotion.
Council members Diane Allison, Lois Drumheller, Bernhard Erb and Clarence Ramsey have said they had concerns with the police department, which they relayed to former manager Jeff Silka. Silka later wrote in a letter to Dice that he didn't “have enough to discharge (Cole),” and that he had told those council members he had “concerns” with demoting Cole.
Drumheller reiterated in an email last week that Cole was in charge of the dispatch center when the HIPAA complaint was filed.
“I will tell you that the entire dispatch center operations were under the command of Doug Cole, and you can draw your own conclusions,” Drumheller said.
Kyle Lawson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8755, or firstname.lastname@example.org.