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Monroeville officials happy with findings of health care investigation

| Wednesday, March 26, 2014, 4:06 p.m.

Monroeville officials were happy to learn Monday that a federal investigation has determined that the municipality did not violate a federal law designed to protect people's health care information.

In a March 21 letter to municipal officials, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said its Office for Civil Rights “finds that there has been no violations of the privacy, security, or breach reporting rules and is, therefore, closing this case,” wrote Barbara Holland, regional manager for the office.

Interim municipal manager Tim Little said the letter brought welcome news.

“It's great for Monroeville to get out from under this cloud,” he said.

An investigation into whether Monroeville violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, was launched when then-assistant police Chief Steve Pascarella in 2012 said a retired municipal employee obtained details about an emergency medical call and forwarded the information to someone who wasn't involved in the emergency.

Federal investigators determined that because the dispatch center, police department and fire department are not health care providers or health plans, they are not subject to the HIPAA privacy law, Holland said.

HIPAA does apply to the Monroeville ambulance service, but medical information gathered by emergency medical staff goes into a secure database, the investigation found.

Year of turmoil

The investigation was at the center of more than a year of political turmoil that included the demotion, suspension, firing and rehiring of police Chief Kenneth “Doug” Cole and the promotion to chief of Pascarella, who later resigned from the position and now is a lieutenant.

Neither Pascarella nor Cole would comment on the government's findings.

Pascarella's complaint led municipal leaders to take steps to ensure that emergency-call alerts go only to active personnel through the dispatch center.

Monroeville maintains its own dispatch center, separate from the Allegheny County 911 system.

Council hired the downtown Pittsburgh law firm of Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote to investigate and respond to inquiries by the federal government.

Officals estimated Monday the cost of the investigation will exceed $50,000. An exact figure is expected to be presented at the council workshop on April 3.

Cole, who was in charge of the dispatch center, was demoted in February 2013 amid accusations that federal or state privacy laws were broken when unauthorized people accessed protected police information under Cole's watch.

After being fired, Cole sued the municipality. He was rehired as chief when new members of Monroeville Council took office in January. His lawsuit still is pending.

Pascarella is on six-month disability, which is scheduled to expire April 1.

Files viewed

In addition to the federal investigation, the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office conducted an audit of the 911 dispatch computer system last year. The audit concluded that unauthorized people viewed sensitive police information that included criminal-history records.

That audit determined that officials took the appropriate steps to secure the sensitive data and discipline personnel tied to unauthorized access of information.

A dispatcher who was fired by former manager Lynette McKinney — who, herself, has been fired by council — amid the internal investigation since has been rehired by Little.

The end of the federal investigation won't change the hiring process of emergency personnel or the way the dispatch center operates, officials said this week.

Official reaction

A majority of 2013 council members — Drumheller, Diane Allison, Clarence Ramsey and Bernhard Erb, none of whom still are in office — supported the internal investigation by Pittsburgh attorneys, which also aided in the attorney general's audit.

“The Attorney General's Office was clear when they commended a punitive action,” Drumheller said.

“Health information and criminal records should never be mistreated this way again.”

Mayor Greg Erosenko and councilmen Steve Duncan, Jim Johns and Nick Gresock argued last year that the internal investigation was an unnecessary use of taxpayer money.

They argued a municipal employee could have compiled the information required by the federal government as part of the investigation. Some officials and residents accused the former majority and Pascarella of conspiring to replace Cole as police chief for political reasons.

“I'm glad it's over,” Johns said Monday. “Two years of listening to accusations.”

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