Olive View-UCLA hospital acknowledges probe of possible patient information leaks

Officials at Olive View- UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar acknowledged Monday that they had launched an investigation into possible leaks of patient information and had warned staff not to speak to the media after reports in the Los Angeles Times about allegations of substandard care in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.

Carolyn Rhee, the county-run hospital’s chief executive, said county Health Department policy is “that our employees not talk directly to the media.”

“We have people who do that,” she said. “We are in a political organization, and we have to be careful about what gets out.”

The investigation into whether confidential patient information had been breached got underway last week after county officials launched an inquiry into the anonymous complaints made to an accreditation agency. Those complaints alleged that neonatal intensive care nurses were running a makeshift beauty parlor and that the unit did not have the personnel to care for seriously ill newborns.

According to state officials, Olive View’s neonatal intensive care unit was downgraded in late 2008 from “community” to “intermediate” status, the state’s lowest designation. But county officials and Rhee, who spoke about the matter for the first time Monday, said they were unaware of the downgrade — which state officials said required the transfer to other facilities of babies on ventilators for more than four hours — until January of this year.

Rhee defended the hospital’s decision to keep babies on ventilators for weeks and months even after January, citing separate state licensing regulations.

“No, we weren’t sending them out after four hours, because we were perfectly capable of taking care of them,” Rhee said of babies on ventilators. “We think it’s better for the patients not to be transferred out, and it’s more convenient for the parents.”

State officials, however, said they took steps in November 2008 to protect such newborns by requiring Olive View to transfer them to hospitals that could provide a higher level of care.

Rhee said that Olive View “all along thought we were at the ‘community’ level. We know the documentation does not say that, but that was our belief.”

According to hospital staff, signs posted last week in the infant care unit warned against sharing patient information. Some in attendance at a staff meeting last week said Rhee tearfully complained about negative publicity.

“I told them I was sad that people felt they had to go external to the organization,” Rhee told The Times.

She said she told staff they could report complaints to supervisors, her office or an anonymous national hotline. Some staff members told her they were not comfortable complaining to supervisors. Rhee said she tried to reassure them.

“We don’t retaliate against people,” Rhee said.

Rhee said hospital officials began investigating after several families of intensive care infants complained that they had been contacted by reporters and a lawyer, which she said indicated that patient information may have been released in violation of federal law.

“We don’t retaliate against whistleblowers. Sometimes it takes bravery to come forward,” Rhee said, adding that they are not trying to identify who filed two complaints.

At the same time, she said they were obligated to pursue possible breaches of patient confidentiality. “We don’t protect people who break the law,” she said.

L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, whose district includes Olive View, sent staff to the hospital Friday, and along with Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, he requested a closed-door meeting on the issue at Tuesday’s county board meeting.

Times staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.