Two-year federal probe exonerates Monroeville

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A nearly two-year government probe into whether Monroeville broke the federal law that protects private health information has found no violations, prompting relief and a feeling of validation among local officials who long maintained there was no wrongdoing.

But the investigation leaves collateral damage in its wake. An inquiry that began in August 2012, when a police assistant chief essentially blew the whistle, eventually resulted in firings, rehirings, demotions, recriminations and deep political fissures that split the municipal council.

Monroeville -- a community of about 28,000 with a vibrant business corridor, a convention center and a two busy hospitals -- was exonerated of breaching the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. That is the same privacy law that your doctor's office explains in paperwork occasionally handed out during office visits.

The municipality Monday released a three-page letter dated March 21 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to the person who filed the complaint, police Lt. Steven Pascarella.

In it, the department's Office for Civil Rights said that neither Monroeville, its dispatch center, police department or fire department is covered under the provisions of the privacy law, which mainly related to health care providers and insurers.

Lt. Pascarella's complaint was sparked by a text message sent by a retired Monroeville police chief to his former secretary.

The text contained the address, age and medical condition of a Monroeville resident who lives on the secretary's street and requested an ambulance. She showed the text to Lt. Pascarella, who recognized it as a dispatch report only current emergency responders should have had access to.

Lt. Pascarella -- who filed the complaint as an assistant chief, rose to chief, and then was demoted -- declined comment.

Not so Mayor Gregory Erosenko.

"Obviously I'm quite pleased, but I knew that would be the end result," the mayor said. "People are going to be shocked at how deep this went in, and how many people they hurt, the past council and former manager [Lynette] McKinney."

Ms. McKinney, who could not be reached for comment, was suspended in November and fired in January.

She aligned herself with Lt. Pascarella and the council majority at the time, but ran afoul of Mr. Erosenko and current police Chief K. Douglas Cole, whom she demoted and eventually fired before he was reinstated.

Two Monroeville council members said they were pleased by the government's findings.

"I was happy that they didn't find any violations, and the folks that were falsely accused, that took the brunt of the accusations, were completely exonerated," Tom Wilson said.

"I am absolutely overjoyed for the employees of our police department, our dispatch center, our EMS and our fire departments and their families, to have this put behind them," Linda Gaydos said.

"Secondly, I'm ecstatic for the residents of Monroeville to know there was no compromise for them at any time and they can now feel confident in the people put in place to take care of them in their time of need. Monroeville can be proud of themselves again."

What their comments do not reflect is the fact that the federal agency noted in the letter that Monroeville's dispatch center records "were accessible to unauthorized individuals" between Aug. 2, 2010, and Feb. 7, 2013.

That is the time frame in which the incident occurred that led to the federal complaint.

HHS "also learned that the municipality failed to properly maintain the database of persons identified as first responders to receive dispatch center information during that period.

"However, the municipality terminated such access by unauthorized persons on Feb. 7, 2013, and has assured OCR that only authorized first responders are maintained on the dispatch center database since that time," the letter said.

The changes referred to were made when Lt. Pascarella and Ms. McKinney were in charge.

In July, a report from a private investigator hired by Monroeville concluded that for more than two years some volunteer firefighters accessed information from 911 calls that should have been off limits.

And in November, the state attorney general's office revealed that Monroeville violated numerous times a state law that regulates the collection and dissemination of sensitive law enforcement information.

The AG's office decided against punishment.

"It doesn't seem like they have read any of the information that was either in the attorney general's report or the investigation itself. Had they, then they might have understood a couple of things," said former councilwoman Lois Drumheller.

"They both knew a breach occurred over protected health information and criminal records," Ms. Drumheller said of the health department and attorney general's office. "The bottom line is health information and criminal records should never be mistreated this way again."

Mr. Erosenko and solicitor Bruce Dice said the government's decision likely has broader implications.

"There are other entities across the commonwealth that have been waiting for this decision.

"We were contacted from as far away as Florida from another EMS group that was waiting for this decision," Mr. Dice said.

Mr. Dice, who at the outset said he did not believe there was any privacy law violation, said the disposition of the situation is clear -- though he left open the possibility of other issues cropping up.

"I think this bears out what we were saying before and it came without any reservations. There's no weasel words," Mr. Dice said. "Now if there's some other violation, some other issue, there might be."

Municipal Manager Timothy Little, who replaced Ms. McKinney, hopes the letter closing the case will put Monroeville on a positive path.

"I think it lifts a cloud off of Monroeville, and specifically the public safety aspect of the municipality, that there wasn't any wrongdoing with respect to [health privacy law] violations," Mr. Little said.

Ms. Gaydos said she also was looking forward.

"We had a group of people in Monroeville that worked against Monroeville, and they smoke-screened and they tried to keep stirring the pot and they tried to scare people and make it worse," Ms. Gaydos said. "They've made it a very, very bad, uncomfortable situation for a lot of people, and I'm hoping this will put an end to it."

But it appears that this saga is not quite done. Mr. Little said he is still trying to get questions answered from the attorney general's office about their inquiry. Mr. Erosenko said he plans to have a public accounting of the toll the past few years have taken, starting April 3 at a public meeting.

There, the mayor said, he will discuss the costs -- literally and figuratively -- of the investigation.

"I promise you we will leave no stones unturned. They talked about transparent government. That's what we want to be," Ms. Gaydos said.

"We want the public to know everything."


Jonathan D. Silver: jsilver@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1962 or on Twitter @jsilverpg. First Published March 24, 2014 6:54 PM

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