FOX 8 Defenders: Covington man receives nearly 100 faxes meant for area doctors

A North shore man received dozens of faxes that contain personal medical information, and they weren’t intended for him. Desperate to get the problem fixed, he reached out to the FOX 8 Defenders to track down answers.
Published: Feb. 16, 2022 at 11:16 PM CST
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COVINGTON, La (WVUE) - “I’d get phone calls at 11,12.. 1, 2, 3 in the morning,” Joe Merrick of Covington said.

He’s talking about the land line at his home, but when he’d answer the calls all hours of the day and night, there wasn’t a person on the other line.

“Sometime during the year 2020, and I didn’t document it, my home telephone recorder started recording fax tones.. and this continued time after time,” Merrick said.

Sometimes the caller ID read “out of area,” sometimes a pharmacy name or an insurance company. “I would call these places back and ask them to remove me from their cold fax machine calls because I thought I was on some fax machine list,” he said.

But the calls kept coming, and in February 2021, he learned more.

“I got a fax machine, connected it to my phone line, my home phone line, and turned off my answering machine, and within a day or so I received what I call fax number 1 of 90.. 90 faxes,” Merrick said.

90 faxes between February and October of last year, and the first fax to Merrick’s home phone was addressed to a doctor.

“It came back that he was affiliated with The Fertility Institute of New Orleans,” Merrick said. He said he reached out to the clinic’s business administrator right away.

Later that day another fax came through at his home. This time it was addressed to a different doctor, but also with The Fertility Institute, which has offices on both sides of the lake.

The faxes didn’t stop there. During that month of February 2021, Joe Merrick’s land line received 19 faxes meant for fertility doctors. These were faxes from different pharmacies, insurance companies, and others, like CoverMyMeds, containing confidential patient information.

“I got a lot of information. I got their names, addresses, dates of birth, prescriptions, and insurance information right here.. a lot of personal information,” Merrick said.

All of a sudden, the home number he’s had for more than 32 years, which isn’t even similar to the clinic’s fax number, was receiving faxes meant for local fertility doctors.

“When I got some more calls, fax calls, I called The Fertility Institute of New Orleans in Mandeville again,” he said.

Over the course of the next few months, Merrick hired an attorney to help resolve the issue, and when the faxes still continued, in July he filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights and the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners.

In a letter, the state board wrote it’s been “unable to substantiate a violation of the Medical Practice Act,” dismissing the case.

HHS’s Office of Civil Rights wrote Merrick that it’s determined “not to further investigate.. the allegations raised..”. Also in its letter, that office says it contacted the clinic administrator who stated “that certain third-party health insurance clearinghouses used by its electronic prescription software had transmitted -- in error facsimiles.. and that the clinic’s electronic medical records vendor “has resolved the issue.”

“Eventually I received a letter or an email from the federal government and a letter from Louisiana saying that they had fully investigated this.. they never talked to me. They didn’t ask for the 90 faxes I had or the number that I did have at that time. But they told me there was no problem.. they didn’t see any problem with this.. fully investigated without talking to the person who filed the complaint,” Merrick said.

Right away he pointed to two problems with that. The information HHS gathered mentioned the documents only pertained to three patients and that his home phone number is substantially similar to the intended number.

Merrick’s number isn’t close to the clinic’s number, and at that time, the faxes covered many more patients.

Desperate to get the problem corrected, he then reached out to the FOX 8 Defenders for help.

In all Joe Merrick received 97 faxes intended for three doctors with The Fertility Institute.. faxes from 25 pharmacies or insurance companies with medical information for 36 patients. I reached out to a handful of them.

None of the women the FOX 8 Defenders reached out to was aware that faxes with their personal medical information had gone to Merrick’s land line. “It’s very personal information, and for somebody to have access to that that can be really hard to deal with,” a patient who did not want to be identified said.

Another patient was concerned her own family didn’t know she was seeing a fertility specialist, but now a stranger does.

“This is a very personal thing.. a lady trying to get pregnant, have a child. That’s very personal. I shouldn’t be receiving this information,” Merrick explained.

Other patients explained they experienced a delay in getting medications. “You know the clinic said they sent the information.. the insurance company.. or the pharmacy would say they never received it, and it just kind of went for a while with the delays in getting the medication approved,” said another patient.

The FOX 8 Defenders also reached out to a handful of the pharmacies that sent faxes meant for The Fertility Institute to Merrick, including Floyd’s Family Pharmacy in Tangipahoa Parish.

Manager Kyle Talley told us it was not intentional in any way. He explained when his pharmacy sends a fax, it’s all automated.

“So we never manually.. we’re not googling these people’s or searching on the Internet, their information on how to contact them. All of that information is automatically populated by our pharmacy software’s database,” Talley said.

He confirmed the fax number had since been corrected in the database his pharmacy uses.

But after calling two other local pharmacies, both in Metairie, pharmacists confirmed the wrong number... Joe Merrick’s home phone.. was listed in their pharmacy database as the clinic’s fax number. Both told me they were removing the number immediately.

“We had two different avenues of patient information going to the wrong.. the wrong number and not going to the physician,” Talley said.

The FOX 8 Defenders also found in some cases when prescribed medications were sent to pharmacies and insurance companies required what’s known as a Prior Authorization from the doctor, several pharmacies used the CoverMyMeds platform, which automates that process, reducing the need for paperwork and phone calls. But in doing so, once again, many prior authorization requests got sent to Joe Merrick.

CoverMyMeds out of Ohio emailed us this statement:

“CoverMyMeds takes these concerns seriously and immediately conducted an internal review to identify the source of the issue. We were able to determine that several pharmacies had the wrong fax number stored for a particular provider’s office, which was caused by an input error before the fax number reached CoverMyMeds. We were able to determine that CoverMyMeds was not the source of the problem, but we took immediate steps to notify each of the pharmacies with whom CoverMyMeds works and instructed them to update the fax number in their pharmacy systems. We have also blocked the incorrect fax number from our system. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.”

A recent letter from The Fertility Institute’s medical director to Merrick’s attorney states in part, the “error was caused by a national pharmacy registry placing the incorrect fax number for our practice into a large database.”

Hours before this story aired, the FOX 8 Defenders received an emailed statement on behalf of The Fertility Institute:

“FINO takes its obligations of client confidentiality seriously, and has cooperated with state and federal regulators, who have closed their review of FINO. We responded immediately and have provided valuable information to support the investigation. FINO did not improperly release patient information, and any statement to the contrary is false.”

“It’s annoying to my wife and I, but more so than anything, I’m concerned for the health and the welfare for all of these ladies,” Joe Merrick said.

Several patients tell us, in the past few days, their doctors have reached out to them to inform them of this fax situation.

Meantime, Merrick said the faxes going to his home land line have stopped.

If you’ve got a consumer issue you’d like us to look into, call the FOX 8 Defenders staffed with volunteers from the National Council of Jewish Women or fill out our online complaint form.

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