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The not-for-profit Hospice of the Florida Suncoast in Largo sought to subsidize their operations by creating a software subsidiary. Now, in addition to being accused of diverting charitable donations to the company-a total of $7.6 million since 1998-the hospice stands accused of releasing confidential patient information to market and demonstrate its product. Now it's a matter for the courts to decide.

Fluffy Cazalas, the former information technology (IT) employee and hospice donor who filed the lawsuit, said she had no option.

"I definitely did not want to be forced into this position," Cazalas told the St. Petersburg Times. "But I don't think they gave me any choice because what they're doing is wrong."

Cazalas, also a donor to the hospice, contends that they're diverting charitable donations toward financing the development of software, rather than the caring for terminally ill people.

But as a former IT employee, Cazalas also claims in the February 25 lawsuit that "the software company has disseminated private and confidential patient and employee data, including information regarding patients with HIV, employee names and identifiers and other confidential and private data."

A second suit, filed May 1, deals specifically with the alleged state law violation. It claims that "information was released on thousands of patients and their next of kin" on the Internet, the Times reported.

Suncoast Solutions denies the allegations.

"Patient confidentiality is not being compromised," assured Michael L. Bell, vice president of development and community relations for the Hospice of Florida Suncoast. "This has been verified time and again by our internal information systems folks on the computer technology side, in the health information department, as well as with external security and computer information systems analysts," he told ADVANCE.

One of the four people named in the suit is Norma Jean Cain. According to the Times, she is the aunt of former IT employee Fluffy Cazalas. Cain's husband was a hospice patient, and she contents that personal information was released on the Internet, including her address, a description of her husband's illness, Social Security numbers and a home phone listing.

Bell explained that Suncoast's software product is currently being used by 107 hospices across the country. "The Web site that was referenced is not a public access Web site. It's a technical assistance site for other hospice programs that have purchased and used our software. If they're having a technical issue and can't simply be talked through it by our tech support staff, they can upload part of their database," he clarified. "The technical assistance staff works with it and sends it back to them." Authorized users can only gain access with a password, he stressed.

But was there a problem in the past?

The February 25 complaint states: "As of November 27, 2001, per Suncoast Solutions' 'Release Notes, Documentation And Presentation Of Data'.from Suncoast Solutions CEO Teresa Craig, the decision was made 'to change our current practice. From this date forward, all employee names, identifiers, patient names and identifiers and Hospice names and identifiers including provider numbers, phone numbers and social security numbers will be created and not real names [sic].'"

"Unfortunately," the complaint contends, "Suncoast Solutions continues to use patient names and identifiers in various aspects of its work and patient identifiers including diagnoses and the like have and are being routinely released."

"My understanding is, when the initial concerns were raised, they were immediately looked into," stressed Bell. "Every care was taken, and every decision and act on our part is responsible, so I don't really understand the intent behind the action that was taken." He contends that "protecting patients' privacy -- giving them a sense of comfort and security -- was always a priority to us, long before HIPAA or any other regulatory mandates came along."

Hospice officials also deny that charitable donations have been diverted to the for-profit Software Solutions, incorporated in December 1998 to market the software. Mary Labyak, the hospice's executive director, admitted to the Times that the start-up company has not been profitable, but that no donations were used to fund the company.

"The suit raised a lot of questions," said Bell. "I'm sure as the legal action goes back and forth, it will raise, hopefully, a lot of truthful answers as well."

Linda Gross is an assistant editor at ADVANCE.


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