DHEC Mum on Mishandled Records

March 3, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveMany questions remain unanswered about the discovery of thousands of S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control medical records in a public recycling bin. The State Law Enforcement Division is investigating the matter.

The documents recently were found at a recycling center behind DHEC headquarters on Bull Street in downtown Columbia.

The records list Social Security numbers, addresses, birthdates, phone numbers and other personal identifying information. Many of the forms contain the results of certain health screenings, such as colonoscopies.

The documents pertain to people across the state.

As with other aspects of the case, the Department of Health and Environmental Control refused to tell The Nerve whether the agency was contacting the people whose information could have been compromised to let them know that it might have fallen into the wrong hands.

Federal and state laws require such notification.

DHEC also would not say whether the agency is reviewing its protocols for handling confidential personal information, or giving department personnel a refresher on those procedures.

The improper disposal of the records runs counter to federal and state laws designed to protect people’s private information and prevent identity theft, a rapidly growing crime that often inflicts severe financial harm on its victims.

Last week, The Nerve was provided with a household garbage bag full of the documents. The bag weighed more than 30 pounds. Less than 24 hours after obtaining the records, The Nerve examined a sample of them and arranged to return them to DHEC.

After the documents were given back to the agency, DHEC issued a one-paragraph news release downplaying the incident. The release said the department had turned over the records to the State Law Enforcement Division and SLED was looking into the situation.

The Nerve reported the contents of the records exclusively in a story posted on this site Saturday.

Contrary to some assertions made publicly since then, no “Dumpster diving” was involved in this case. The medical records were sitting at the top of a green roll cart designated for office paper at the recycling center, which is a drop-off location used by an unknown number of people.

A reliable source who asked not to be named provided the records to The Nerve, as well as photographs of them in the roll cart.

Other media have reported on the case in the days that have followed.

A bounty of questions that the case raised continues to go unanswered. The Department of Health and Environmental Control is declining to comment and referring inquiries to the State Law Enforcement Division; SLED will not talk about it, either.

Both agencies cite the ongoing investigation in explaining their silence.

The biggest question is how the records ended up in the recycling container.

Within hours of the documents being given to the Department of Health and Environmental Control, the agency’s chief spokesman, Thom Berry, called and thanked The Nerve for returning them and inquired about speaking with the source who found the records.

“Because we should sure would like to know why this happened,” Berry said, “and we’re just trying to figure out where things went wrong that this material ended up where it wasn’t supposed to be.”

In standard journalistic practice, The Nerve did not reveal its source. But, per a request from Berry, The Nerve passed along his contact information to the source.

Berry called back the next day. This time he asked how and when The Nerve acquired the records, and said the agency would provide a response to the incident by the end of the day.

The Nerve answered Berry’s two questions, but DHEC did not provide a response.

The agency instead did a Friday evening news dump, issuing its one-paragraph release at 4:45 p.m. that day. The Nerve did not receive a copy of it at that time.

Berry apologized, attributed that to a miscommunication and said it was his fault.

DHEC usually posts its news releases on the agency’s Web site. But as of Tuesday afternoon the release about the SLED inquiry into the improperly discarded medical records had not been posted on the DHEC site.

Jim Beasley, a spokesman for the department, said that was an oversight and he was contacting agency personnel to get it posted.

This is not the first time DHEC has engaged in questionable practices with the media.

In October 2008, The State newspaper reported that the agency posted on its Web site an audio recording of an interview of DHEC officials, including Commissioner Earl Hunter, by two reporters from The State. The department also posted written questions the journalists had submitted and DHEC’s responses to them, according to the paper.

The kicker: The agency posted the material before The State published anything based on the interview.

Reach Ward at (803) 779-5022, ext. 117, or eric@scpolicycouncil.com.