Thursday, September 21, 2023

HHS Launches Civil Rights Investigation Into Vanderbilt’s Sharing of Transgender Patient Data – MedCity News

Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) in Nashville is under federal investigation after it turned transgender patients’ medical records over to Tennessee’s attorney general. 

HHS launched the investigation a couple weeks after two VUMC patients filed a class-action lawsuit against the hospital for releasing their records to Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti.

John Howser, VUMC’s chief communications officer, confirmed in a Monday email that the hospital is cooperating with HHS’ Office of Civil Rights for the investigation. He said VUMC has no further comment because the investigation is ongoing.

VUMC’s issues surrounding transgender care date to September of last year, when about 60 Republican members of the Tennessee House of Representatives sent a letter to the hospital raising concerns about its transgender care clinic. The lawmakers’ letter was inspired by a series of tweets published by Matt Walsh — a popular columnist for conservative news outlet the Daily Wire — in which he criticized VUMC’s clinic for transgender patients. In his tweets, he alleged that VUMC “drugs, chemically castrates, and performs double mastectomies on minors.”

Shortly after VUMC received the letter from the state lawmakers, the hospital halted gender-affirming surgeries for patients under age 18. The hospital said it was pausing these surgeries while it completed an internal review of the latest clinical guidelines for treating transgender patients.

But the letter from the Tennessee House of Representatives wasn’t the only scrutiny that VUMC was facing from the state government over its transgender care at the time.

Skrmetti launched an investigation into the hospital’s transgender care services last fall, although his office didn’t publicly confirm the probe until this June. In a statement, the office said the probe was looking into a potential “manipulation of medical billing codes to evade coverage limitations on gender-related treatment.” 

The office asked VUMC to turn over the medical records for its transgender patients as part of the probe, and the hospital began doing so in December of 2022, the statement said.

About a month after Skrmetti announced that VUMC had been sharing its transgender patients’ records with his office, two patients filed a class-action lawsuit against the hospital. In the complaint, the plaintiffs alleged that VUMC violated HIPPA as well as its own policies for patient privacy.

The lawsuit said that VUMC gave Skrmetti the medical information for 106 patients who received transgender care services at the hospital. Those records included personally identifying information as well as “some of the most intimate details” of VUMC patients’ private lives, the complaint charged. The plaintiffs also alleged that the hospital “did not inform its affected patients that it had done this.”

For its newly launched investigation into VUMC, HHS will focus on the hospital’s release of this information to Skrmetti. The department did not respond to MedCity News’ request for more information about what its probe will entail.

In June, VUMC shuttered its transgender clinic to prepare for a statewide ban on providing gender-affirming care for minors. 

Photo: illustration, Getty Images

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