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Nurse’s apparent breach of medical records adds to sheriff’s problems while Legislature grows restless

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The Jefferson County Board of Legislators has not formulated a response to the latest in a string of allegations of misconduct brought against employees of the Sheriff’s Department, though it is growing impatient.

“We’re all getting very anxious,” board Chairwoman Carolyn D. Fitzpatrick said.

For now, the board is content to let Sheriff John P. Burns handle matters internally.

“The sheriff is doing his best to get these problems, and major problems they are, straightened out,” Mrs. Fitzpatrick said.

But if the board is not satisfied with the results, it may call for an external investigation.

The sheriff is open to pursuing that option, according to Mrs. Fitzpatrick.

On Monday, it was revealed that a registered nurse caring for inmates at the county jail violated federal law by accessing without authorization the medical records of someone who was not an inmate.

Health care professionals at some county agencies have access to confidential records through the Meditech system at Samaritan Medical Center to facilitate care for patients in their charge. According to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, they are not permitted to access records of patients not directly in their care without prior written authorization.

According to Samaritan spokeswoman Krista A. Kittle, a red flag was raised Dec. 20 when a recently installed auditing system alerted the hospital’s compliance department to irregular activity associated with the nurse’s login information. Following an internal investigation at Samaritan, the breach was confirmed Jan. 4. The nurse’s access to records was shut down that day.

On Jan. 7, Lt. Kristopher M. Spencer, the jail administrator and the nurse’s supervisor, was notified of the illegal activity.

He met with the compliance department at Samaritan at 9 a.m. the following day. It provided him with a list of patients whose records had been accessed. He checked that list against a list of inmates, and one of the names did not match.

At 1 p.m. that day, Lt. Spencer called the nurse, who had been working for the department for a year and a half, to his office.

“I confronted her with the discrepancies. I wanted to know who it was and what the relationship was. She resigned on the spot with no explanation,” he said.

Samaritan Medical Center is required to notify the person whose records were breached by mail within 30 days of the Jan. 4 confirmation. Ms. Kittle said the letter would be sent within the next two days.

At that point, it is entirely up to the aggrieved party to decide how to proceed. Action taken against the county could include a civil suit.

A source indicated to the Times that the Sheriff’s Department had reported the incident to the state Education Department, which licenses registered nurses to practice in New York state. Sheriff Burns did not return repeated calls to confirm this information.

According to New York Public Health Law, Article 28 facilities such as hospitals and nursing homes are required to report violations of this nature to the Education Department. The county jail is not an Article 28 facility.

According to Lt. Spencer, the nurse was a member of Jefferson County Civil Service Employees Association Local 823.

CSEA President Laurel L. Holt-Simmons said she could not comment on the matter Tuesday because she did not know who the nurse was, and no one had yet reached out to her.

Mrs. Fitzpatrick said she and the board have been working with the sheriff to resolve various allegations against members of the department since the beginning of December.

The board doesn’t want to hurt the morale of the department or negatively affect the good work it does protecting the county, she said, “but we are going after the bad guys.”

Sheriff Burns is waiting for the results of the state investigation into the conduct of Undersheriff Andrew R. Neff, who is accused of sending lewd pictures to a convicted felon using his county-issued cellphone. That case should be resolved this week, the sheriff said Friday.

On Jan. 9, Sheriff Burns charged Deputy Adam B. Hallett with having an open alcoholic beverage container in his patrol vehicle following an investigation into an incident in which Deputy Hallett was found asleep in his vehicle off County Route 72 in the town of Henderson several hours after he went off duty Dec. 1. Deputy Hallett was to be suspended without pay for an undisclosed period.

Sheriff Burns said Deputy Matthew A. Vaughn, who was the first to respond to the call about Deputy Hallett, would face internal disciplinary charges for not taking appropriate action at the scene.

A suit is pending against Detective Steven C. Cote for allegedly deceiving a female deputy into posing nude for photographs meant to be used as part of an online pedophilia investigation.

Corrections Officer Mark H. Kellogg is facing a third-degree assault charge resulting from a bar fight in Adams Center.

Deputy James J. Randall served a 60-day suspension starting in August for having a relationship with a convicted felon, Raven C. Carreira, who accused Detective Cote of making a defamatory statement against her in a suit dismissed Nov. 1.

Times staff writer David C. Shampine contributed to this report.

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