Las Vegas Sun

October 21, 2014

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Source may hold key in solving UMC patient data leak

FBI agents investigating the patient data leak at University Medical Center should talk to Dr. Steven Holper.

County and hospital officials may want to talk to him, too.

Holper, a rehabilitation specialist, says he has no direct knowledge of the leak. But just before it was disclosed in the Sun, he said, the manager of a personal-injury law firm approached him with an unusual proposal on how to get patient referrals from the public hospital: Give a gift card to a particular, well-placed UMC employee.

Holper’s clinic is on West Charleston Boulevard, a street lined with offices of chiropractors, doctors and personal injury attorneys — most looking to tap into the stream of traffic-accident patients treated down the road in UMC’s trauma center.

The lure of big money may have been the motive that led someone at UMC to leak patient information — names, Social Security numbers, birth dates and the dates of traffic accidents and nature of the injuries — allegedly to ambulance-chasing attorneys.

After the Sun reported the leak Nov. 20, the FBI launched an investigation into the crime, which violates the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, better known as HIPAA. UMC officials later said the leak had been going on for months but stopped Nov. 19, the same day the Sun informed hospital administrators it had received patient “face sheets” from a source. Administrators did not say how they knew the leak stopped the very day they were informed and before the Sun published the story.

Several weeks earlier, Holper said, the manager of a personal-injury law firm suggested he deliver a gift card to a specific UMC employee who would, in return, ensure that the hospital would send him traffic-accident victims who were released from UMC and still needed medical care. Holper would, in turn, refer the patients to the manager’s law firm.

Here’s why Holper would be of interest to the FBI: A reliable source said the same two people identified by Holper have direct information about the leak at UMC.

The Sun’s original stories were prompted by a source in the medical community who provided 21 UMC face sheets to the newspaper to prove the leak. The source claimed to be several degrees removed from the leak and to not know its origin. But in addition to the face sheets, the source provided the Sun with the names of two people with knowledge about the crime — the same law firm manager and UMC employee involved in the scheme with Holper.

The Sun is not identifying the two individuals because they have not been named as suspects by authorities. The UMC employee has access to patient information and works with hospital administrators.

The two have not responded to multiple requests by the Sun for interviews.

After weeks of the Sun leaving messages with the employee, the UMC worker informed supervisors about the contact by the Sun. Within days, high-ranking county and federal law enforcement officials contacted the Sun, but they refused to speak on the record for this story.

Holper said he knows nothing about the leak. He said he naively pursued the plan proposed by the law firm manager until he and his staff became suspicious after the Sun’s report of the leak.

Holper had previously treated patients represented by the law firm, and although he wasn’t desperate for patients it was always a good idea to keep business coming in the door, he said.

Parts of the law firm manager’s pitch made Holper wonder if the deal was legitimate. For example, the manager allegedly emphasized it was just a gift card — not a bribe — to help the UMC employee remember to send the doctor patients.

It’s just something nice for Christmas so (the UMC employee will) remember you, Holper recalls the manager saying about the gift card.

The manager said the arrangement would provide incentive for the hospital to send him patients, Holper recalled.

Such a scheme would circumvent UMC’s established procedures to refer patients for treatment after they are discharged.

Holper figured the plan would benefit everyone involved. The gift card seemed harmless, he reasoned, and patients who couldn’t pay for their care or were uninsured would benefit because he would not charge them for medical care. Instead, he would refer them to the law firm that, according to the plan, would represent the patient in litigation and use a jury award or settlement to pay the doctor’s fees and its legal fees. Because doctors refer patients to attorneys frequently, he said, there was no problem sending the patients to this law firm.

Holper said he moved forward with the arrangement. His girlfriend, Kara Leichty, purchased a $200 gift card to P.F. Chang’s China Bistro to deliver to the UMC employee.

Leichty told the Sun that the encounter with the hospital employee was awkward, possibly because three people were within earshot of their conversation. She thought the hospital employee expected the visit, so she handed the employee the gift card and explained it was a gift from Holper.

The employee “looked surprised,” Leichty said — and kept the gift card.

Holper later realized there was a hitch to the referral plan: He did not have credentials to practice at UMC, which would be required to accept its patients. The law firm manager urged him to start the process, Holper said.

But by then, the Sun had published stories about the patient privacy leak and the FBI launched its investigation. Holper said he opted against getting credentials at UMC because he became uncomfortable with the proposed arrangement.

He said he asked the law firm manager whether the proposed deal to get referrals was related to the patient data leak and the manager told him the two were unrelated.

The doctor did not get any referrals through the arrangement proposed by the law firm manager. When the Sun approached Holper, he reluctantly agreed to talk because he said he had done nothing wrong. He said he would tell the FBI the same story because he has nothing to hide.

UMC’s policy to care for patients after they are discharged does not include a special referral list for patients injured in traffic accidents. Typically, when patients are discharged, their follow-up visits are with the on-call doctor who treated them in the hospital. It is against federal and state law and county regulations for a public employee to accept gifts in exchange for favors such as referrals.

Holper now wonders why the employee accepted the gift card.

“I want my $200 gift certificate back!” he said.

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