Doctor Penalized for Privacy Violations After Disclosing an Abortion Procedure on a 10-Year-Old Rape Victim

The Medical Licensing Board of Indiana has penalized obstetrician-gynecologist, Dr. Caitlin Bernard, based in Indianapolis, IN with $3,000 and issued a letter of reprimand for her violation of HIPAA and state privacy regulation after telling the media that she provided a 10-year-old rape victim with an abortion on July 1, 2022.

In just hours after the Supreme Court overturned its decision on Roe v Wade and took away the federal right to have an abortion, Ohio prohibited abortions on those in the 6th week of pregnancy. After three days, on June 27, 2022, Dr. Bernard got a phone call from a child abuse doctor based in Ohio regarding a 10-year-old patient who cannot legally get an abortion in Ohio because it’s been three days after the new law. So, the victim went to Indiana where Dr. Bernard performed the procedure.

An IndyStar reporter overheard Dr. Bernard conversing with another doctor during an anti-abortion rally and went up to Dr. Bernard to ask for a remark. The IndyStar published a story concerning the girl and the diminished access to abortions after the Supreme Court’s decision. The news story quickly spread nationwide and President Biden even referenced the case on several instances. After the story was published, Dr. Bernard gave additional statements to the press, had an interview on national TV sites, and got featured in numerous media posts, wherein Dr. Bernard pointed out the real-world effect of the modification to federal legislation on abortions. Dr. Bernard confirmed in those press interviews that she had conducted an abortion procedure on an unnamed 10-year-old patient.

Immediately after the IndyStar story was released, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita stated in an interview on Fox News that Dr. Bernard is going to be investigated. Rokita submitted an administrative complaint to Indiana’s Medical Licensing Board claiming that Dr. Bernard had violated HIPAA and state legislation by not getting written consent to release patient details and that Dr. Bernard did not promptly report alleged child abuse to local Indianapolis authorities or the Indiana Department of Children Services. Rokita said that Dr. Bernard knew about the likely child abuse on June 27, 2022, during a phone call, but did not report it right until July 2, 2022, a day after performing the procedure. Therefore, the child went back to the alleged rapist’s custody, where she stayed until July 6, 2022. Authorities later affirmed, with a 99.99% certainty, that the child’s biological father was the rapist, who was facing two counts of rape.

During the Medical Licencing Board hearing, Dr. Bernard’s lawyer mentioned that Dr. Bernard informed an IU Health social worker concerning the situation on the same day she got the first call concerning the patient and that there was discussion as per IU Health’s policies. She additionally stated that the abuse was already reported on an Indiana state form and that the abuse was already reported in Ohio, the place where the abuse occurred. The IU Health social worker spoke that she submitted the abuse report in Ohio according to IU Health guidelines since that was the place where the abuse happened. Dr. Bernard likewise confirmed with child protection personnel in Ohio that the child is safe to go with her mom and said that she didn’t violate state or federal privacy regulations since she didn’t divulge any identifying data concerning the patient.

During the hearing, Deputy Attorney General Cory Voight questioned Dr. Bernard why she shared details about a real individual, instead of offering a hypothetical scenario in her press interviews. Dr. Bernard said that it’s extremely vital for people to be aware of the real-world effects of the legislation of this nation concerning abortion. It’s necessary for people to understand what patients will experience as a consequence of laws that are being approved, and a hypothetical doesn’t give that impression.

Andrew Mahler, a former HHS OCR official, was a competent witness for the state and spoke that Dr. Bernards’s information sharing violated HIPAA, since it was undoubtedly possible that the data shared by Dr. Bernard – age, gender, and state – would enable the identification of the girl. Paige Jayner, a privacy compliance official and ex – OCR auditor, gave testimony for the defense and did not agree with Mahler’s perspective, saying that the data Dr. Bernard shared wasn’t protected health information (PHI) and that the exposure wasn’t a HIPAA violation. IU Health concurred and didn’t think there was HIPAA Rules violation. During the hearing, Dr. Bernard protected her right to talk to the press regarding medical problems when it is a public interest and her lawyer affirmed that no rules forbid doctors to speak with the press.

President of the Medical Licensing Board, Dr. John Strobel, thinks Dr. Bernard shared plenty of details with the IndyStar reporter concerning the unresolved abortion and stated permission must have been acquired prior to disclosing any details. The majority of the Medical Licensing Board made the decision that the exposure broke state and federal privacy legislation and Dr. Bernard got a $1,000 penalty for every one of the three counts of privacy violation. The Medical Licensing Board discovered the state did not satisfy the burden for the other two counts on submitting a child abuse report as an unfit practice, and thus didn’t suspend Dr. Bernard or place her on probation up to the time she could continue her practice in Indiana. Dr. Bernard can file to plead the decision.

Elizabeth Hernandez

Elizabeth Hernandez is the editor of HIPAA News section of HIPAA Coach and an experienced journalist in the healthcare sector. She specializes in healthcare and HIPAA compliance, making her a go-to source for information on healthcare regulations. Her work focuses on the importance of patient privacy and secure information handling. Elizabeth also has a postgraduate degree in journalism. Follow on Twitter: You can follow Elizabeth on twitter at https://twitter.com/ElizabethHzone