Lawmaker requests probe into NIH breach, revealing his records affected

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Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas. Source: Texas Christian University  

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, Thursday asked Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general to investigate the Feb. 23 theft of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) laptop, after revealing that he is among those approximately 3,000 heart patients whose medical information was potentially exposed.

Barton, the ranking minority member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, revealed that he is among the cardiac MRI patients whose medical information was potentially exposed to the public when an unencrypted government laptop was stolen in February from the car of a NIH researcher, the Washington Post reported.

Among the questions raised in Barton’s letter is whether the NIH has an adequate system for contacting patients affected by such events. Barton and others were not notified of the breach until last week because of agency record-keeping problems. At least one patient said that he found out only after contacting the NIH, according to the Post.

Similarly unclear is why the computer was not encrypted, as required by federal rules, and why the NIH's tally of affected patients was initially short by more than 500, according to the Post. The agency said on March 21 that 2,500 patients were affected, but on Monday, raised that number to 3,078.

NIH spokesman John T. Burklow said Wednesday that a “clerical error” was to blame and that letters went out to the last affected people by March 28, reported the Post.

Barton's involvement in the study stems from a heart attack he suffered in December 2005 during budget negotiations in the Capitol basement. He was treated at George Washington University Hospital and had follow-up studies at the NIH. Records from that incident were in the laptop, he said, adding that he was “upset” to learn that his private medical information “might be among those in the wrong hands,” the Post reported.