GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

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July 3, 2008

Mayor: Pregnancy numbers may violate privacy

Disturbed by the international spotlight focused on pregnancies at Gloucester High School, Mayor Carolyn Kirk said yesterday she is investigating whether staffers at the school-based health clinic violated patient confidentiality laws when they discussed the issue with faculty and members of the press.

Kirk said she has sent a letter to Stephen Laverty, the president of Northeast Health System — the company that runs Addison Gilbert and Beverly hospitals and administers the high school health center — and has asked him to describe what information the company considers confidential, how it deals with requests for information, and what consequences employees face if they reveal protected information.

The letter, received by Northeast on June 27 and made available to the Times by the mayor in response to a public records request, stops short of alleging a violation of federal medical privacy laws, but expresses regret that news of the spike in pregnancies at the high school has exposed students to scrutiny and leaves open the possibility of wrongdoing.

"I hope you and your organization are as distressed as I am over the public discourse which has revealed far too much information about Gloucester students than is necessary or appropriate," the letter says.

Yesterday, Kirk said she was not immediately charging Northeast, school or clinic staff with a violation of privacy laws, but reiterated that the city needs to conduct a "review into whether there are violations and by whom."

"One of the biggest complaints that I am getting, is that the breaches of confidentiality have devastated the families," Kirk said. "The press was able to hunt these girls down and find them. That was what the (privacy laws) were designed to prevent."

Specific requests of Northeast made in the letter include how information inquiries from the press, parents and School Department are handled. The letter also asks whether the company considers confidential the number of pregnancy tests given at the clinic, the number of confirmed pregnancies at the school and behavior of students upon hearing the results of the tests.

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