The Maine Attorney General’s Office is reviewing whether the city of Portland violated patient privacy laws when it recently gave the names and contact information of more than 200 people previously enrolled in its HIV-positive health care program to researchers at the University of Southern Maine.

City officials apologized last week for not telling patients of the former HIV-positive program at the India Street Public Health Center that it planned to share their private health information, addresses and phone numbers with USM’s Muskie School of Public Service.

However, city officials insisted that sharing the list wasn’t a formal breach of HIPAA – the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which aims to protect the privacy of personal health information – because the law contains exemptions for research and program evaluation.

Jenson Steel, a member of the health center’s patient advocacy committee, said he contacted the Attorney General’s Office about the city’s action and was informed that the office is looking into possible violations of federal and state patient privacy laws.

“I can confirm that the Attorney General’s Office has received requests to review the disclosure of identifiable HIV patient information,” office spokesman Andrew Roth-Wells said in an email Tuesday. “The AG’s office will be reviewing the requests.”

The city drew fire from patient advocates when it closed its federally funded HIV-positive program at the India Street clinic in December 2016 and transferred it to the private nonprofit Portland Community Health Center, now called Greater Portland Health.

When a city analysis showed that only 33 of 229 patients in the program moved to Greater Portland Health, the city decided to conduct a survey through the Muskie School to get feedback on each patient’s experience.

CITY GIVES CONTACT LIST

The city has been wrangling with privacy concerns related to the survey for at least three months.

Dr. Ann Lemire, former medical director at the India Street clinic, said Tuesday that she was first asked on Sept. 11 to provide a contact list of former patients for the survey. Lemire declined the request, she said, and warned that providing such a list to the city would violate HIPAA.

To avoid violating privacy protections, Lemire said, the city should have sought permission from patients before the program closed in order to contact them for a follow-up survey. Who created the list and provided it to Muskie School researchers remains unclear. A USM official said the researchers were under the impression that the patients had authorized the release of their information.

“My hope is the AG’s office will go after this HIPAA violation for all of the patients who were affected,” Lemire said. “Some of them may not even be aware that their information was shared.”

Former patients received the survey from the Muskie School with a cover letter – dated Nov. 3 and addressed to “Participant” – indicating that the city provided their contact information. A USM official said the institution received the patient contact list in October, after it had established guidelines for handling and protecting the information.

RESPONDING TO COMPLAINTS

The city suspended the survey after receiving two formal complaints, including one filed Nov. 11, city officials said. The city then determined that it had failed to secure a HIPAA-compliant business associate agreement with USM before sharing patient information.

The city “corrected that technical deficiency” by executing a fully HIPAA-compliant agreement with USM after the fact, including additional privacy protections, city officials said.

Last week, after the Portland Press Herald started investigating patients’ privacy concerns, city officials said they planned to send survey participants a five-page form letter from Dr. Kolawole Bankole, the city’s public health director, who also is a member of the Muskie School’s public health adjunct faculty.

In the letter, Bankole apologized that the city didn’t do a better job of communicating with survey participants, but denied that it violated privacy laws.

The letter also noted that the city was “implementing new and updated policies and procedures for ensuring that our health care entities and programs better communicate with patients regarding uses and disclosures of their patients’ (protected health information) for these types of research, program evaluation and business associate-related purposes going forward.”

City officials declined to provide documents related to the survey, which they said was moving forward and expected to be completed in January.

Staff Writers Randy Billings and Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KelleyBouchard

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.