California Hospital Faces Sanctions After Workers Wrongly Looked at Patient Records

The private records of more than 60 patients, including the actress Farrah Fawcett and the state’s first lady, Maria Shriver, were improperly viewed by workers.

The center, one of the country’s leading medical institutions, learned last May that the security of the medical records had been breached after The National Enquirer printed an article about a recurrence of Ms. Fawcett’s cancer before she had told family members.

As soon as Ms. Fawcett’s lawyers notified hospital officials that they feared her medical records had been leaked to one or more tabloid newspapers, the center began an investigation, said Roxanne Moster, a spokeswoman.

The investigation revealed that records of 61 patients, roughly half celebrities or politicians, had been opened by one unauthorized worker who had since quit. “There was intent to terminate,” Ms. Moster said, “and I believe it was going on when she resigned.”

Ms. Moster said there was no evidence that the employee, whom she would not name, revealed medical information about Ms. Fawcett or anyone else to reporters.

“I know that the internal investigation looked at her e-mail records, her phone records, and they did try to determine whether any information was inappropriately given,” she said. “There wasn’t any solid evidence that she did give out that information.”

Ms. Moster said that in a separate incident in February, several employees were suspended or fired after an internal audit revealed another violation of a patient’s records. She would not identify the patient, but The Los Angeles Times reported that it was the singer Britney Spears, who was admitted to the medical center’s neuropsychiatry unit earlier this year.

The hospital did not notify the California Health and Human Services Agency of the violations, Ms. Moster said, because officials thought the center was obligated under state law to report only medical errors. “We are cooperating fully with the department of public health moving forward,” she said.

The state agency, which oversees the licensing and certification of hospitals, has begun its own investigation, said its secretary, Kim Belshé.

Patient privacy rights are protected under a variety of state and federal laws. The medical center could be fined or have its licenses taken away. Also, the state’s findings could be referred to law enforcement officials.

“It appears that we have a pattern of repeated violations, and that is very troubling, and we take that very seriously,” Ms. Belshé said. “It is not a question of will we take action but determining what action to take.”

Ms. Moster said the hospital was working to ensure that the episodes would not be repeated. “Our concern for our patients is absolute,” she said, “And we regret any breach of patient confidentiality.”

Lawyers and publicists for Ms. Fawcett and Ms. Spears did not return telephone calls Monday seeking comment.

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