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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Discarded Or Stolen? Hospital Patient Record Dispute Lingers In Newport

A standoff continues between North Country Hospital in Newport and a former I.T. employee who says he found a discarded computer with patient records still on it, after it had been retired by the hospital. 

The saga highlights the importance of scrubbing private data from used computers.

The Newport hospital is assuring patients that no further breach of privacy will occur. But the man who has the computer says he won’t give it back until the hospital stops calling him a thief.

The I.T. worker is named Christian Cornelius. He  also goes by the name Christian George.

He says the laptop computer was brought to him at home last April by a neighbor who also worked for North Country Hospital. He says she wanted him to re-configure it as a gift to her husband.

Cornelius says he wasn’t getting along with the worker back then, so he shelved it until he was fired by the hospital in July. Then, he says, he started sorting through electronics in his home and discovered something surprising about that laptop.

“Turned it on and didn’t expect to see a Windows logo pop up, but it did. Discovered that there was a hard drive in it and that there was a perfectly working image of North Country Hospital business on the laptop,” Cornelius said.

He says patient records were accessible. Cornelius says a volunteer is supposed to destroy hard drives in retired laptops before they are given to employees for personal use.

“So when he comes in he’s got a stack of laptops and what he’s supposed to do is remove the hard drives from the machine and put them in a shredding bin inside my data center,” he said.

But he believes that protocol is not always followed. Cornelius says his job at the hospital was to operate the data center—not to de-commission hard drives. So he insists it’s not his fault that the computer left the hospital with patient records still on it. He says he immediately notified the hospital and asked what to do with the laptop, but did not get a prompt reply.

The hospital tells a very different story. Nancy Goss is in charge of Community Relations.

“I don’t know how it got to his home but part of his job when he worked here, part of everyone’s job in the IT department, is to clean off the hard drives of recycled computers, of computers—laptops or desktops that are given to other users,” Goss said.

The hospital demanded the return of the laptop. Cornelius now refuses to comply because he says police have served him with a citation for larceny.

“At this point they are indicating that it’s a stolen laptop; it is in fact a discarded laptop that was given to me by a third party.”

So the dispute seems to have reached a stand-off. Meanwhile, the hospital has published anotice in local newspapers, apologizing to patients whose records may be on the computer and assuring them that passwords have been changed so than no unauthorized user can access personal data.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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