Kaiser will pay up to $49 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the state Department of Justice and prosecutors in six counties, including San Bernardino, that accused California’s largest health care provider of disposing of syringes, medicine, bodily fluids and potentially body parts in dumpsters bound for local landfills.
Among the waste, investigators found more than 10,000 pages of medical records for 7,700 patients during those inspections, according to state Attorney General Rob Bonta. Prosecutors suspect millions of Californians’ personal information may have ended up in the trash across the state.
Kaiser, under state and federal laws, should have shredded that information and sent the medical waste to licensed facilities for disposal.
‘Serious’ health risk
“The items found posed a serious risk to anyone that may have come into contact with them, from health care providers and patients in the same room as the trash cans, to custodians and sanitation workers who directly handled the waste, to workers at the landfill,” Bonta said during a press conference.
“Nurses, physicians and patients could inadvertently touch blood or bodily fluids containing dangerous pathogens. Custodians and sanitation workers could be stuck by a used needle. An aerosol can that wasn’t fully empty could explode and start a fire in a trash can, or in the back of a garbage truck making its way through neighborhood streets.”
Though Bonta said the waste included body parts, Kaiser Permanente said in a statement that it was not “aware of any body parts being found at any time during this investigation.”
The health care provider learned of improper disposals about six years ago and took immediate action, according to the statement.
“We immediately completed an extensive auditing effort of the waste stream at our facilities and established mandatory and ongoing training to address the findings,” the statement said. “We take this matter extremely seriously and have taken full responsibility to acknowledge and, in cooperation with the California Attorney General and county district attorneys, correct our performance regarding landfill-bound trash where it may have fallen short of our standards.”
Probe launched in 2015
The district attorneys’ investigation started in 2015 through a collaboration among Alameda, San Francisco, San Joaquin and San Bernardino counties. Undercover inspections at 16 Kaiser facilities found hundreds of items of hazardous and medical waste, including aerosol cans, cleansers, batteries, syringes, medical tubing with bodily fluids and pharmaceuticals.
In a statement, San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson praised his staff for dedicating “years of their time and expertise” to the probe. The county’s Consumer Environmental Protection Unit assisted with compliance efforts for all of Southern California.
“I am confident that this case shows the residents of San Bernardino County that our office will not stand by as hospitals and other medical clinics dispose of medical waste including biohazards, hazardous waste and personal health information into our landfills, jeopardizing medical confidentiality,” Anderson said.
The Department of Justice joined the local prosecutors and expanded the investigation statewide as it became clear that the problem was much more widespread, Bonta said. Kaiser, headquartered in Oakland, provides health care to approximately 8.8 million Californians at more than 700 facilities. It is the largest health care provider in the state.
“We believe that these practices were system wide and impacted anywhere potentially where Kaiser was disposing of hazardous waste, of medical waste, of private patient information,” Bonta said.
Kaiser cooperated with the investigation and conducted 1,100 self-audits, which revealed even more problems, according to Ken Mifsud, a deputy district attorney from Alameda County, now working in San Mateo County.
“During those audits, we were able to estimate that millions of Kasier patients’ information over the course of five years had been unlawfully disseminated, at least thrown into the trash and potentially at risk of being picked up by identity thieves across various different landfills and transfer stations,” Mifsud said.
Kaiser will pay $47.25 million directly, including $37.5 million in civil penalties, $4.8 million in attorney fees and $4.9 million for supplemental environmental projects, primarily environmental prosecutor training, according to Bonta’s office.
The health care provider agreed to spend another $3.5 million within the next five years to “implement enhanced environmental compliance measures” to ensure it is following state laws. If the company fails to follow through, it will incur an additional $1.75 million in civil penalties.
Kaiser will hire a third-party auditor — approved by the Attorney General’s Office and the district attorneys — to conduct at least 520 trash audits and 40 field audits at Kaiser’s facilities in California over the next five years to evaluate its compliance.
This isn’t the first time Kaiser has run afoul of state and local prosecutors for improperly handling personal data. It previously paid $150,000 in penalties and fees in 2014 to resolve a lawsuit stemming from the discovery of a USB drive at a Santa Cruz thrift store that contained more than 20,000 employee records.
Source: Orange County Register