A man who volunteered for years at University Medical Center is accused of paying about $8,000 to a trauma unit employee for confidential patient records and then using the information to solicit clients for personal injury lawyers.
Richard Charette, 54, of Las Vegas was indicted Wednesday in federal court on one count of conspiracy to disclose personal health information in violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, a law commonly referred to as HIPAA.
Brian Brannman, the county hospital's chief operating officer, said he appreciated the diligence and professionalism of the FBI agents who conducted the investigation. They "shared our deep concern for this as an issue affecting our patients," he said.
Brannman said he does not know the identity of the trauma unit employee, who was not named in the indictment, or whether the person still works at the hospital.
"I think the FBI will advise us as soon as it's appropriate," he said.
Brannman said hospital officials "want the full weight of the law to come down on" those involved in leaking patient information.
"Health care depends on trust," he said.
In November, hospital executives learned that accident victims' personal information had been disclosed to local lawyers. Charette's indictment is the first case stemming from the criminal investigation that has become public.
The State Bar of Nevada, which is responsible for disciplining attorneys who engage in misconduct, also has been investigating the matter.
"Our inquiry is ongoing and, in fact, was initiated before the indictment was handed up," Assistant Bar Counsel Phil Pattee wrote in an e-mail Wednesday. "The State Bar's investigation has not been in conjunction with the apparent federal probe. Because the State Bar's investigation, pursuant to Supreme Court Rules, remains confidential, the Office of Bar Counsel cannot provide further information at this time, including the identity of any attorney who might be involved."
Daniel Bogden, the U.S. attorney for Nevada, said the criminal investigation also is continuing. He said he could not discuss details of the case but noted that the Obama administration has a "zero-tolerance policy" for health care fraud.
Brannman said the FBI has taken all of the hospital's records pertaining to Charette, so he could not say exactly how long the man had volunteered at the hospital or what types of duties he performed.
Brannman could say only that Charette had volunteered at the hospital for "several years."
According to the indictment, Charette conspired with others from about January 2009 through November to disclose the health information of trauma patients "with the intent to obtain a commercial advantage and personal gain."
The document alleges that the unidentified trauma unit employee obtained "face sheets," which contained confidential information about trauma patients, from patient files "without a valid reason for doing so."
The employee then provided the face sheets to Charette by hand or by fax, according to the indictment.
"Charette used the information contained in the Face Sheets to solicit patients on behalf of local personal injury attorneys," the indictment alleges. "Charette also hired people to solicit patients on behalf of local personal injury attorneys. Charette instructed some of these people to use a fake name when contacting patients."
Charette paid the trauma unit employee for each patient who "retained a personal injury attorney with whom Charette was affiliated. Charette benefitted by generating referrals for these personal injury attorneys," according to the indictment.
The document claims the employee faxed face sheets to Charette 55 times between July 31 and Nov. 19. In exchange, the indictment alleges, Charette paid the employee about $8,000.
"In or about June 2009, defendant Charette persuaded an individual to contact patients, using the UMC Face Sheets, in an effort to obtain personal injury referrals for attorneys with whom he was affiliated," according to the indictment.
Around November, the indictment alleges, Charette unsuccessfully attempted to persuade another individual to contact patients using the UMC face sheets.
When the allegations about leaked records came to light in November, Pattee said the State Bar had received no complaints about attorneys inappropriately receiving or using UMC patient information.
But he said a combination of ethics rules prohibits lawyers from engaging in the kind of activity alleged in the UMC case.
"Essentially you cannot give nonlawyers anything of value for referring a client to you," he said.
While lawyers are allowed to advertise, they are not allowed to solicit business directly from prospective clients, although exceptions exist, Pattee said.
A summons was issued Wednesday for Charette, who is scheduled to appear May 14 before U.S. Magistrate Judge Peggy Leen.
Bogden said he was not aware of any past federal prosecutions in Nevada involving HIPAA violations. If convicted, Charette would face a sentence of up to five years in prison.
Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at cgeer@ reviewjournal.com or 702-384-8710.