The Indiana Medical Licensing Board found an Indianapolis doctor violated privacy laws in her handling of a 10-year-old abortion patient’s information last summer but cleared her of the charge that she failed to report abuse of the girl quickly enough.
The case, brought by Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, could have cost Dr. Caitlin Bernard her license but the seven-member board found her fit to continue practicing medicine. Most of the board agreed on the privacy laws issue, and they unanimously agreed on the reporting charge. She will be fined $3,000 and receive a letter of reprimand.
The board, which is appointed by the governor, has 90 days to finalize its decision, after which both sides have 30 days to appeal in Marion Superior Court.
'Chilling effect': National experts decry decision against abortion doctor Caitlin Bernard
10-year-old rape victim's story became national news
The girl's story appeared in a July 2022 IndyStar article about reduced abortion access following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. From there, abortion rights advocates and politicians, including President Joe Biden, used the story to support their arguments while some conservatives questioned whether the story was true.
Indiana Deputy Attorney General Cory Voight told the medical licensing board at Thursday's hearing that as a result of Bernard’s disclosure, "everyone – the country – learned about her patient. Learned a 10-year-old little girl was raped and had an abortion.”
Voight also said Bernard’s failure to immediately report the child abuse ended with “a child returning to live with her rapist for five days in Ohio.”
Bernard's attorney, Alice Morical, said Bernard properly reported abuse "as she does in every case." The day she spoke to an Ohio physician who wanted to refer the patient to her, Bernard told an IU Health social worker, Morical said, in line with IU Health policy.
Rokita, who promised to investigate Bernard in an appearance on the Fox News show “Jesse Watters Primetime” shortly after the IndyStar story first published, was not present at the hearing.
Bernard testified, however.
"I think that it's incredibly important for people to understand the real-world impacts of the laws of this country," Bernard said when Rokita's attorneys asked why she didn't share a hypothetical story with the IndyStar reporter instead of an actual patient's story.
"That's not your patient's conclusion, right?" Voight replied.
"I can't know what her conclusion would be," Bernard said. "But I can imagine that she would also have knowledge and experience of the impact that the anti-abortion legislation in (her state of) Ohio could have on her."
American Medical Association official testifies to ethical obligation
Bernard's employer, IU Health, said she didn't violate HIPAA privacy laws. Her attorneys noted that she reported the girl's abuse on a state form and it had already been reported to law enforcement in Ohio, where the crimes took place. A suspect was subsequently arrested and charged in Ohio.
Peter Schwartz, chair of the Council of Ethical & Judicial Affairs at the American Medical Association, said Thursday Bernard had an “affirmative” obligation to speak out when faced with the "most compelling ... ethical dilemma of our lifetimes," referring to the end of the right to an abortion.
An expert witness for the state – Andrew Mahler, a former official with the federal Office for Civil Rights – said the doctor violated federal privacy laws because it “certainly is possible” the girl could have been identified based on the facts Bernard gave the IndyStar reporter. The reporter, Shari Rudavsky, said in videotaped testimony that Bernard gave her no information beyond that which was published.
Another one of Bernard’s expert witnesses, Paige Joyner, a privacy compliance officer and past auditor for the Office for Civil Rights, disagreed with Mahler.
“The information she shared was age, gender and state," Joyner said. "That’s not protected health information."
Call IndyStar courts reporter Johnny Magdaleno at 317-273-3188 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @IndyStarJohnny
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Caitlin Bernard, Indiana doctor, violated privacy laws, board rules