Woman fleeing abusive ex ‘lived in fear’ because of Health PEI phone mix-up, says daughter

Alonzo Osche

Health PEI is being urged to reconsider its practice of changing an entire household’s phone information when one person submits a contact change request, to acknowledge that relationships can break up and privacy must be safeguarded. (Aaron Amat/Shutterstock – image credit) A P.E.I. woman at the centre of an investigation […]

Health PEI is being urged to reconsider its practice of changing an entire household's phone information when one person submits a contact change request, to acknowledge that relationships can break up and privacy must be safeguarded.  (Aaron Amat/Shutterstock - image credit)

Health PEI is being urged to reconsider its practice of changing an entire household’s phone information when one person submits a contact change request, to acknowledge that relationships can break up and privacy must be safeguarded. (Aaron Amat/Shutterstock – image credit)

A P.E.I. woman at the centre of an investigation by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner lived in constant fear that her abusive ex-husband had gained access to her personal health information because of a phone mix-up at Health PEI, according to the woman’s daughter.

The woman, a senior citizen, was leaving an abusive relationship and still has a protection order against her former partner. For those reasons, CBC has agreed not to identify her or her daughter.

The office of P.E.I.’s privacy commissioner is questioning how Health PEI maintains and updates contact information in its database, after the woman kept finding her contact number with the agency was listed as the cellphone number of her former partner — even after she tried multiple times to correct the error.

The woman’s daughter said at the time they believed it was the abusive ex-partner who kept changing the phone number back. Regardless of how it was happening, she said they were concerned her mother’s ex was being provided with the woman’s confidential health information.

“We didn’t know if he would know when her hospital appointments were, when her doctors’ appointments were,” she said.

“So we lived in fear every time we got into the vehicle to go for an appointment. Would he be there? Would we be faced with that abuser in the parking lot or in a building because he was provided with information from Health PEI?”

‘Reasonable concern,’ says official

A report from Maria MacDonald, an adjudicator with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, concluded the problems stemmed from a technical error and from the way Health PEI maintains its contacts database.

But MacDonald, herself a former privacy commissioner for P.E.I., said under the circumstances it was a “reasonable concern” for the woman to worry her former partner might have learned about her appointments or other health information.

Tried to change number four times

Over the course of nearly a year and a half, the woman changed her phone number with Health PEI four times, only to find that the next time she visited the hospital, she was still listed under her former partner’s cell number.

Toward the end of the time in question, when the woman started to receive home care services, workers said they were having difficulty reaching her — because the workers were still calling the number of her former partner.

P.E.I. Information and Privacy Commissioner's Office adjudicator Maria MacDonald noted in her report that keeping phone contact information separate is especially important when dealing with potential victims of domestic violence.

P.E.I. Information and Privacy Commissioner’s Office adjudicator Maria MacDonald noted in her report that keeping phone contact information separate is especially important when dealing with potential victims of domestic violence. (CBC)

That was more than a year after the woman had first tried to correct her contact information with Health PEI.

Health PEI said that in one instance, there was a technical error that prevented a correction from being properly applied to the system.

But MacDonald cited another problem — Health PEI’s practice of linking people together into households in its client registry database, and then changing contact information for all people in that household when information for one of them has changed.

Presumably, the woman’s ex-partner had changed the number back when trying to correct their own contact information while seeking medical care.

‘Difficult to understand’

Health PEI said its practice is meant to ensure information is accurate. In this case, MacDonald said it had the opposite effect.

“It is difficult to understand why the complainant’s former partner changed the complainant’s phone number across several databases with one interaction, but the complainant has not been able to correct their contact information over several interactions,” MacDonald wrote in her report.

“The complainant’s fear is that the complainant’s former partner, or someone helping the complainant’s former partner, was accessing and changing their personal health information.”

Even another 24 hours puts a woman or children at risk of being potentially physically harmed by an abuser. — Complainant’s daughter

MacDonald said she accepted Health PEI’s assertion that there was no unauthorized access to the woman’s personal health information; nor was anyone deliberately changing her phone number back.

But again she said the concerns were reasonable under the circumstances.

Health PEI advised to change practice

In her report, MacDonald recommended Health PEI reconsider its practice of automatically changing contact information for all members of a household — or at least start asking whether a new phone number applies to all household members when someone makes a change.

She noted Health PEI’s assertion that it considered the difficulty with the woman’s phone number an “unintended outcome” of a system that was otherwise working as designed.

According to Health PEI’s submission to the privacy commissioner’s office, the system of changing all contacts in a household simultaneously “is intentionally designed in this manner for efficiency and for purposes related to some health and social services processes, such as eligibility for certain programs.”

In a statement to CBC, Health PEI said it would now ask if changes in contact information apply to all members of a household.

Regarding the other recommendation, to stop grouping contact information by household, the agency said it was committed “to evaluating this process for possible improvements,” something it said could take several months.

MacDonald noted that Health PEI’s client registry database is nearly 20 years old, and questioned whether the practice is appropriate at a time when it is “quite common now, for members of a household to each have their own phone number.”

Don’t wait another day, says daughter

“I think that the system needs to be changed and it needs to happen right now,” the daughter told CBC.

What hope does somebody, a woman who’s abused and has children, what hope do they have? — Complainant’s daughter

“Even another 24 hours puts a woman or children at risk of being potentially physically harmed by an abuser.… We’ve known about this for well over a year now.”

She said all through the process of reporting the issue first to Health PEI and then to the privacy commissioner and other officials, she didn’t feel the health agency was taking the issue seriously.

She noted it took “four or five tries … and a complaint to the privacy commissioner” for her and her mother to get the issue corrected in their case, and wondered if the next person to find themselves in a similar situation might be able to get the same outcome.

“What hope does somebody, a woman who’s abused and has children, what hope do they have?”

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