Friday, Oct. 17, 2003 | 11:19 a.m.
A local neurosurgeon's comments to the media about illusionist Roy Horn's operation at University Medical Center have sparked an investigation about a possible illegal invasion of privacy, a hospital official said Thursday.
UMC spokeswoman Cheryl Persinger said the comments by Dr. Lonnie Hammargren could have violated hospital policy or state and federal laws, and an investigation has been launched by the hospital's chief of staff, the district attorney's office and other hospital officials.
Thomas E. Jeffry Jr., a Los Angeles-based medical attorney, said the incident could be the "first very big, very public case" involving a new federal law designed to protect the privacy of patients.
The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act limits the use and release of a patient's medical information. Violations of the law can bring fines of up to $250,000 or 10 years in prison, Jeffry said. The privacy section of HIPAA went into effect in April.
In comments Wednesday in newspaper and TV stories, Hammargren said Horn had suffered a stroke and underwent a surgery to relieve pressure from the brain. The surgeon cuts away a piece of the skull and puts it in the abdomen so the bone tissue continues to live.
Hammargren, a well-respected neurosurgeon and former lieutenant governor, was responding to earlier news reports of the surgery. The tabloid paper the Star quoted an unnamed source saying Horn underwent the surgery and the New York Daily News picked up that story. Las Vegas media followed.
Persinger said the hospital is also investigating how the Star got its information and any other leaks.
It is not clear how Hammargren obtained the information that led him to offer local media details about Horn's injuries and subsequent brain surgery and what action the hospital can take, Persinger said.
The comments outraged people close to Horn and spurred the hospital to seek the source of the information and the details surrounding its release.
"We are absolutely stunned that Dr. Hammargren would have chosen to speculate about Roy's care as he is not a member of Roy's medical team nor to our knowledge should he have any reason to have access to any accurate medical information," said MGM MIRAGE spokesman Alan Feldman.
"This goes directly against the family's wishes about what they want said in public about Roy's care, and as far as we know is in violation of hospital policy and federal law."
Feldman said Hammargren had been in the hospital on several occasions. "He was allowed to make use of (an) area intended for (Horn's) family" in the hospital "... (but) he is not in any way consulting on Roy's medical care," he said.
Horn's neurosurgeon, Dr. Derek Duke, and other UMC personnel were not available for comment and Hammargren did not return calls from the Sun.
Duke has given one statement to the press, speaking at a news conference with Feldman and Siegfried & Roy's manager, Bernie Yuman. He did not take questions. Yuman allowed Duke to make the statement.
Yuman could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Jeffry, who participated in congressional hearings on the federal law, said the key issue under the law is whether Hammargren is directly or indirectly involved in Horn's care, or whether he obtained the information in a setting unrelated to the patient's care.
"If there was a conversation within the hospital (about Horn's case) ... in that situation most physicians would have to maintain the privacy of that information," he said. The implication in the latter case would be that a person directly involved in Horn's care consulted Hammargren and so Hammargren would be expected to keep the information confidential.
"However, if the surgeon is a friend of Hammargren's and gave him the information at the golf course, then that surgeon may be guilty of providing the information," he said.
Either way, the case appears to present a violation of the federal law, the attorney said.
"Somewhere along the chain it's likely there's a violation," Jeffry said.
He also said that the case shows the need for the law to protect the privacy of patients. The high profile of this case may affect people's attitudes about health care, he said.
"People may question whether they can trust the health-care system in general," he said.
Ira Pollack, regional manager for the Office of Civil Rights within the Department of Health and Human Services -- the agency that enforces HIPAA -- said there have been 2,378 complaints made nationwide since the law was passed in April. A total of 346 were from the Western region -- California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii. Most of the complaints nationwide are still under investigation and no penalties have been assessed in the Western region, he said.
The official also said that Horn's status as a public figure "does not mean his privacy is not protected under the law," although he admitted that having a doctor disclose information to national and international media "would create some interesting policy questions to deal with."
One such question involves fines that can be assessed, as they are levied for each disclosure. It is unclear whether each time the information appears in a different media source counts as a disclosure, Jeffry said.
Persinger also said the case appears to be in violation of hospital policy, which "prohibits anybody from disclosing confidential or protected health information to anybody other than the patient or those designated by the patient."
Horn's family had signed the power of attorney over to Siegfried Fischbacher and Yuman, Persinger said.
"As far as I can tell, Dr. Hammargren was not designated to release information," she said.
Feldman said he is "keenly interested to know how the hospital responds" to the issue.
"At the very least, it's an administrative matter," he said.
Feldman also said the public's interest in Horn's condition does not justify an invasion of his privacy.
"We're not talking about an elected or religious leader," he said.
"At the end of the day, he's still an entertainer."