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October 03. 2012 5:28PM

Exeter Hospital says it has nothing to hide in hepatitis C probe

EXETER — Exeter Hospital officials insist they're not trying to hide anything, arguing that the state is illegally seeking “unfettered” access to patient medical records as the investigation into a hepatitis C scare continues.

At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, the hospital and its lawyer said they've been trying to work with the state during the probe, but hospital officials claim the state's request violates patient privacy laws.

“Exeter Hospital wants to continue to help the state officials and other investigators get to the bottom of the issue that caused this tragic incident and the infections of over 31 people with hepatitis C, but the hospital also has a responsibility to tens of thousands of patients who it cares for,” said Mark Whitney, the hospital's vice president of strategic planning and community relations.

The news conference was called a day after the state Attorney General's Office filed a motion objecting to a protective order sought by the hospital to prevent the release of some patient medical information.

The state wants to see more medical records as it investigates the outbreak that infected 32 former patients.

Former hospital medical technician David Kwiatkowski, 33, is accused of infecting unsuspecting patients by using syringes filled with the painkiller Fentanyl on himself and then returning the contaminated needles for use on patients.

The hospital filed a petition for declaratory judgment and a motion for a protective order in Merrimack Superior Court in August asking that the state not be given access to some of the records.

The state claims its request for medical records doesn't violate state and federal laws, saying state law “expressly requires health care providers to report and provide information to Public Health pursuant to a communicable disease investigation.”

The state also maintains that state law “abrogates the physician-patient privilege to provide for disclosure of protected health information to Public Health.”

The hospital argues that it's simply seeking “judicial guidance” as it tries to balance the state's requests with privacy rights of patients.

“On the one hand we know that the state has a legitimate interest to try to get to the bottom of what happened here. The investigation has been ongoing from the very moment that Exeter reported the cluster of information to the Department of Public Health. Exeter has worked hand in hand with the state to get them every bit of legitimate information to help them with that investigation, but as time has gone on the state has asked for more than it is legally entitled to have,” said the hospital's lawyer, W. Scott O'Connell of the Manchester law firm Nixon Peabody.

He claims the state has so far sought access to the hospital's “entire medical record system.”

Hospital officials have asked the state to narrow its request for patient record information.

O'Connell said the state must make its requests “surgical, discreet, tailored to get only that which is minimally necessary for their legitimate interests.”

“They're not willing to let us go in and sanitize the record for things that can only be produced with patient consent, and if they're not willing to let us do that, we cannot put this information in the hands of the state,” he said.

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