BELOIT — A Beloit firefighter has been suspended without pay after he breached patient privacy protocols stemming from a medical call in February of last year.
The Beloit Police and Fire Commission met three times this week to hear the case.
Firefighter Jake Fehrenbach was given a one-day, unpaid suspension after he violated department standards related to internal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) procedures. Following the medical call, Fehrenbach accessed the records multiple times to review the handling of the case, according to correspondence between Fehrenbach and department command staff.
“We found this to be detrimental to the department,” Chief Brad Liggett said. “We have to maintain the integrity of the department.”
After unauthorized access of the records, Fehrenbach discussed the patient care report with other firefighters and non-departmental staff at a training course following the call, an additional breach of department policy. Fehrenbach relinquished his paramedic license in June of last year following the incident.
Command staff notified the Department of Health and Human Services of a possible HIPAA violation following consultation with HIPAA representatives.
Any violation of HIPAA could cause the department be fined or face civil litigation. The patient listed on the patient care report taken from the department filed a complaint following the incident.
While in possession of the patient care report, the document remained unredacted for two days, according to Deputy Chief Joe Murray. In an email exchange with command staff, Fehrenbach stressed he was unaware of needing permission to access medical records, and repeatedly apologized for the mix up of records.
PFC members quizzed Murray and other witnesses repeatedly over how the department handles HIPAA training and information access over the course of call reporting. Fehrenbach’s defense argued the department’s HIPAA standards and general orders were ambiguous and hard for firefighters to determine what could or could not be accessed.
The defense also focused on how the department handles paperwork of patient health care reports, which are reviewed by paramedic supervisors. The department conducts a two-week HIPAA training course for all new employees, and notifies employees of all conduct or procedural changes. The department does not require re-training of all HIPAA guidelines.
In June 2015, Fehrenbach was disciplined for bullying a firefighter, although the firefighter never characterized the incident as bullying, and was asked to handle all patient care during a 24-hour shift as a paramedic by Fehrenbach, according to testimony given by the firefighter-paramedic. In 2012, Fehrenbach was given a coaching session with command staff after improperly labeling narcotics on an ambulance.
Liggett noted during his testimony the firefighter’s union contacted the department regarding its paramedic program and how it handles patient medical records following the incident.
Paramedics also use unredacted patient information during quality assurance purposes, a violation of the department’s code in relation to how forms must be handled following medical calls. Liggett said the department would conduct an investigation into the use of unredacted medical records, but would not say if command staff would be disciplined.
In regard to Fehrenbach, Liggett said he was a great firefighter, with a strong attention to detail for his work.
“I think he has a great future with the department,” Liggett added.