Groups Allege Calif. Agency Shared HIV Patient Data

In what they termed a "gross affront" to patient confidentiality, three legal groups slammed California health officials for giving personal information about thousands of HIV-positive welfare recipients to a nonprofit HIV service provider.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, Lambda Legal, and the AIDS Legal Services Alliance on Thursday sent state Department of Health Care Services Director David Maxwell-Jolly an angry letter asking why his agency provided the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of roughly 5,000 HIV patients to the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) over the last two years.

"We provided very limited information to AHF about certain beneficiaries, and that was to be used for the purpose of contacting individuals to let them know they were eligible for these additional services," said Norman Williams, a health department spokesperson. "We believe our actions comply with the law." He said the data did not include patients' HIV status, the medications they are prescribed, or the names of their doctors or insurance carriers.

AHF President Michael Weinstein said the foundation sought to recruit clients for a statewide outreach, education, and case management program for low-income people with HIV under a contract it has with the state.

But ACLU staff attorney Elizabeth Gill said California specifically prohibits the release of patients' identifying information to third parties. Sharing a person's HIV status without permission or authorization for public health purposes is a violation of state law punishable by civil fine of up to $25,000. "This is the most sensitive medical information out there," said Gill.

Due to difficulties it faced in recruiting patients, AHF sponsored a bill in the Legislature this year that would have allowed the health department to share all the information it has about welfare recipients being treated for HIV. The bill never made it out of committee.

Weinstein accused the legal groups of "trying to protect people's rights by depriving them of care." AHF is one of the largest U.S. providers of HIV/AIDS care.

However, "There isn't an exception in the privacy laws simply because someone might think the third party would be friendly to the patient," said Lambda Legal's Peter Renn.