Update: The parent company of St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center issued a public apology Thursday. Read the latest story here.
Employees at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston created a “wall of shame” where they displayed confidential medical records of patients with disabilities detailing issues with their genitalia and bodily functions, according to an investigation by the Maine Human Rights Commission that found the exhibit had contributed to a hostile work environment.
In addition, at least two employees looked at the private medical records of a fellow coworker, MyKayla McCann, whom the hospital had previously treated. She ultimately reported her suspicions about their actions, in addition to the wall of shame, to the hospital’s administration. When she did, it took three to four months for the hospital to remove the display, investigate and punish her coworkers, according to the investigation. (The hospital disagreed, saying it removed the wall of shame within “weeks,” though the commission said McCann produced “credible evidence” to support her timeline.)
Describing her workplace as “intolerable,” McCann, who lived in Turner at the time, resigned in January 2017. The following month she submitted a complaint with the human rights commission — often a first step toward reaching a settlement or filing a lawsuit in court.
A human rights commission investigator found there are reasonable grounds to believe that St. Mary’s hospital discriminated against McCann, who is a member of a protected class because she has a disability, when it subjected her to a hostile environment created by her coworkers’ conduct. In a separate recommendation, the investigator did not find reasonable grounds to believe the hospital retaliated against her for raising concerns about discrimination. The human rights commissioners, who are appointed by the governor, voted unanimously Jan. 28 to support these findings.
St. Mary’s hospital is part of a network of facilities operated by Covenant Health, a Catholic nonprofit based in Massachusetts. Karen Sullivan, vice president of corporate communications for Covenant Health, said she could not comment on pending litigation. (No lawsuit has been filed, but a discrimination claim may end up in court if the parties don’t reach a settlement first.)
Verne Paradie, McCann’s attorney, also declined to comment. McCann did not return a phone call Wednesday.
McCann discovered the “shame wall” on the inside of a cabinet door on her first day of work as a laboratory technician assistant at St. Mary’s in June 2015. It had been labeled a “wall of fame,” with the word “fame” crossed out and replaced by “shame.” Portions of medical records had been cut and taped to the door. They “included information detailing patients’ sexual activity, genital dysfunction, bowel movements, bodily odors, and other personal maladies,” according to the investigator’s report.
McCann also provided pictures of the wall in her complaint. In one place, someone had attached strips of paper with diagnoses on them: “cramps/bloated/things to do w/intercourse,” stated one. “Drooping eyelids,” “butt wounds,” “unable to insert tampon,” “sour smell of vagina with occasional itching,” stated others.
Sullivan, with Covenant Health, did not respond to questions about whether the hospital had informed the patients whose information had been posted, or how the public could find out if they or loved ones were potentially affected.
McCann, who had previously been treated by the hospital, did not initially report the shame wall because she was new and worried she would also be targeted. “She did not want to risk opening the cabinet door one day and discovering that she was the newest addition to the Wall,” said her complaint. To protect her privacy, her medical history is redacted in the human rights commission documents.
Nearly a year later, in April 2016, McCann took a leave of absence because of her health conditions and specifically sought treatment from different hospitals because she feared her coworkers would find out and ridicule her, she told the human rights commission. When she returned to work, she believed her coworkers were treating her differently. Three laboratory technicians in particular began asking her inappropriate personal questions that showed they might have knowledge about her health.
She said she told her supervisor in September 2016 that she believed her coworkers had improperly looked at her medical records and that she was the subject of workplace harassment. She also reported the wall of shame. The supervisor, however, recalled McCann first reporting conflict with coworkers in October 2016, according to the investigation. Either way, the supervisor agreed to investigate McCann’s claims, which the supervisor, who is not named in the records, described as “a complicated process” that involved working with the information technology department.
The review dragged on. In November 2016, the supervisor met with McCann to update her and told her there was an indication that six to eight St. Mary’s employees had improperly accessed her electronic medical records, according to McCann’s complaint. When McCann demanded to know who exactly had gained access, the supervisor declined to provide names given the ongoing review.
By Dec. 6, 2016, McCann had not heard back from her supervisor, so she emailed the hospital’s director of human resources, who is not named in commission records, either, to say her coworkers had gone into her private hospital records and had been mocking her.
“That is disability harassment and I want it to stop. I also want illegal looking into my records to stop. What do I need to make this happen?” she wrote, according to a copy of the email.
Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, the names of patients and their medical records are confidential and cannot be disclosed without permission. Maine law also protects the confidentiality of medical records.
In a Dec. 9, 2016, phone call, the human resources director said the review of McCann’s electronic medical records was taking longer than expected but that they anticipated having more information the following week.
Thirteen days later, on Dec. 22, 2016, McCann met with her supervisor and the director of laboratory services. She was told the hospital “was acting to discipline those employees who had improperly accessed her records,” according to the investigator’s report, but they were unsure whether they could give her the employees’ names.
Five days later, on Dec. 27, 2016, the hospital fired one person, referred to as “Lab Tech 1,” and issued a warning to a second coworker who had accessed McCann’s records.
McCann said these actions motivated some coworkers to continue to harass her and blame her for the termination, according to the complaint.
The investigation found, however, that McCann “could only provide that Coworkers inquired about Lab Tech 1’s termination and whispered in front of her; she could not testify to other examples of increased harassment.”
There was also debate about when the hospital removed the wall of shame.
McCann testified that it was still intact in January 2017. The hospital disputed this and claimed the supervisor removed it “a matter of weeks after it was first reported.” However, McCann “produced credible evidence” in the form of a photo electronically dated Dec. 26, 2016, showing it was still up, according to the investigator’s report. And a third-party witness corroborated McCann’s statement that it was still on display in January.
Soon after, McCann left. In a letter dated Jan. 12, 2017, she resigned “due to the hostile work environment and the numerous HIPAA violations that I have repeatedly reported.”
The human rights investigator found it irrelevant that the wall of shame did not target McCann personally.
“Coworkers constructed a workplace display ridiculing patients with disabilities. [McCann] encountered the display every day as part of her regular environment, making harassment pervasive,” it stated. “The information posted on Shame Wall was intended to demean and humiliate and included supposed ‘jokes’ about the hospital’s physically and mentally disabled patients.”
Although McCann suffered an abusive environment, the hospital eventually took corrective action to allow her to continue to work, the commission found. However, it took three to four months to investigate and remove the wall of shame, “which is an unacceptable delay,” it stated.
The commission is a state agency responsible for investigating complaints of discrimination under the Maine Human Rights Act. If a case is not resolved, such as through a settlement agreement, following a commission investigation, complainants may pursue a lawsuit in court.
Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.