Fla. Law Enforcement Investigating Letters Sent to HIV-Positive People Claiming Status Disclosed in Health Dept. List
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the West Palm Beach Police Department and the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Department have launched an investigation into anonymous letters being sent to HIV-positive people in Palm Beach County claiming that each individual's name, address and HIV status were obtained from a list accidentally released from the county health department, the Palm Beach Post reports (Daugherty, Palm Beach Post, 3/16). The letters, which were mailed from West Palm Beach but included no return address, list the phone number of an Indiana medical billing firm and say, "You can make a difference right now, become a sponsor and donate your time to help the families in West Palm Beach Country (sic). Because you are HIV-positive, this will give you a chance to build a meaningful relationship with HIV-positive people in our community. You (sic) name appeared on a list of HIV/AIDS patients for Palm Beach County. So will you please contact me ... to confirm your participation" (LaMendola/Deere, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 3/17). Scott Herbst, an attorney representing the Indiana company, said that the firm has received "a number of calls" from people asking about the letter. Herbst said the company has no known connection with the letters and that company representatives have been referring callers to the Palm Beach County Health Department. It is not known how many people received the letters, the Post reports.
Earlier E-Mail Incident Likely Unrelated
Although Palm Beach County Health Department statistician John Nolan last month inadvertently e-mailed a confidential list containing the names of HIV-positive people in the county, local health officials do not believe the person who mailed the letters obtained a copy of this list, the Post reports (Palm Beach Post, 3/16). Department officials said that Nolan, who specializes in HIV/AIDS data, accidentally attached the list of 6,500 HIV-positive individuals to a routine e-mail to 800 health department employees. Nolan realized his mistake shortly after sending the e-mail and contacted the department's technology staff, who within an hour shut down the system and purged all e-mail attachments. According to health department spokesperson Tim O'Connor, 10 people already had opened the e-mail, but none of them had saved, printed, forwarded or stored the list, which contained only patients' names (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 2/22). Palm Beach County Health Department Director Dr. Jean Malecki said the letters likely are "a hoax, entirely separate from the incident with e-mails which our investigation shows did not leave the health department," adding that the list Nolan e-mailed did not contain any patient addresses and "was literally on the computer for 12 minutes." Malecki added, "I believe people are taking advantage of this situation and frightening people who are already living with this horrendous disease" (Palm Beach Post, 3/16). Releasing confidential information about people's sexually transmitted disease infections "out of malice or for financial gain" is a third-degree felony under Florida law and carries a penalty up to five years in prison, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Deere, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 3/16).