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Patient Privacy Is Breached in Political Race : Medical ethics: Physicians use names and phone numbers during campaign for gay candidate Bob Burke. Doctors defend their actions, but others call it 'indefensible' and 'wrong.'

July 28, 1991|CLAIRE SPIEGEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a jarring message that played on Elliott Hessayon's answering machine.

The telephone call was from a volunteer in a political campaign who was soliciting Hessayon's vote on behalf of an openly gay candidate for the 46th Assembly District in Los Angeles.

The disturbing part was that the caller said he had gotten Hessayon's name and number from Hessayon's personal physician--a doctor at a prominent Los Angeles clinic that specializes in the treatment of HIV-infected patients.

"Until that moment," said an outraged Hessayon, "it had been my belief that there was a guaranteed confidentiality between a patient and his doctor."

The incident occurred just before the June 4 primary election to fill the legislative seat vacated by Mike Roos. The tumultuous race among 15 Democratic candidates was decided by 31 votes.

More than a month later, Hessayon is still distraught that his phone number found its way from his doctor's office into the political campaign of Bob Burke. Hessayon, a Silver Lake artist, has filed a complaint with the Medical Board of California and asked for an investigation to uncover how many other patients may also have been affected.

Hessayon's roommate, Kurt Katzan, told The Times that he, too, received a call from the Burke campaign in which the name of his former doctor was used as a reference. Robert Peterson, a former typesetter who lives in Koreatown, said he was called by a Burke campaigner who revealed "out of the blue" that he knew that Peterson has AIDS.

Burke, who placed fifth among the Democrats by garnering 1,828 votes, said he had no knowledge about these particular claims.

The case touches on a sacred cornerstone of the medical profession that has been codified in state law: doctor-patient confidentiality. Medical ethicists contacted across the country denounced what they said appears to be a breach of that principle.

Arthur Caplan, director of the center for biomedical ethics at the University of Minnesota, said when he was informed of Hessayon's case: "It's inexcusable, manifestly unethical and plain and simply wrong. There is no more nightmarish prospect I can imagine than when a political campaign pries their slimy hands into a doctor's records."

Judith Ross, professor of medical ethics at UCLA, said there is a disturbing tendency these days for doctors to "get kind of casual" about patient's privacy because there is so much information about patients that is made available to insurance companies and employers.

Burke denied any impropriety. He said his campaign was a decentralized operation, in which he asked his supporters to make political calls on his behalf. His supporters included architects, engineers, doctors and lawyers, he said. "They all called from their own lists."

The night before the election, which handed victory to candidate Barbara Friedman, Hessayon's answering machine recorded a message, which he has kept:

"This is Alex Koleszar calling from the Burke for Assembly campaign headquarters. I actually had gotten your telephone number from Dr. Jenkins . . . who feels that Bob Burke could do an excellent job as far as AIDS issues, and are trying to support him. If you're going to be voting tomorrow, we'd like to ask if perhaps you'd consider voting for Bob."

In an interview, Koleszar said that he made the call from his home, not campaign headquarters. He said he had been given Hessayon's telephone number by his friend, Dr. J. Scott Hitt, who had gotten it from his friend and medical colleague, Dr. Robert Jenkins.

The two doctors work at the Pacific Oaks Medical Group. With offices in Beverly Hills and Sherman Oaks, the group of about nine doctors is known for its clientele of 10,000 patients and its specialty in treating AIDS-related problems.

Hitt, who is listed in campaign literature as a community leader formally endorsing Burke, said in an interview that he did some "grass-roots" campaigning by compiling a list of 300 names of voters to target on Burke's behalf.

"No patient files were used by me or turned over to anyone else," Hitt stated in a June 11 letter to his patients. He wrote the letter to deny charges made in political flyers that patient files at Pacific Oaks had been used to solicit votes.

Jenkins acknowledged giving Hessayon's name and number to Hitt, but said it was not wrong. "I didn't even say he was a patient," Jenkins told The Times, "and I didn't say what he was treated for.

"All they got was a list of names and phone numbers from me," Jenkins said. Some names were of patients, but not all of them. He said he could not remember the breakdown.

"Just because I'm a doctor doesn't mean I can't give out names and addresses of people who live in the district," Jenkins said.

However, medical ethicists agreed that doctors are not supposed to reveal the names of their patients or give out their phone numbers for anything unrelated to their medical care.

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