LOS ANGELES – A former UCLA Healthcare System employee pleaded guilty today to four counts of illegally reading private and confidential medical records, mostly from celebrities and other high-profile patients.
Huping Zhou, 48, of Los Angeles, pleaded guilty prior to a trial scheduled to begin next week to four misdemeanor counts of violating the federal privacy provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Appearing before United States Magistrate Judge Andrew J. Wistrich, Zhou specifically admitted to knowingly obtaining individually identifiable health information without a valid reason, medical or otherwise. Zhou becomes one of the first people in the nation to be convicted of violating the privacy provisions of HIPAA.
Zhou, who is a licensed cardiothoracic surgeon in China, was employed in 2003 at UCLA Healthcare System as a researcher with the UCLA School of Medicine. On October 29, 2003, Zhou received a notice of intent to dismiss him from UCLA Healthcare for job performance reasons unrelated to his illegal access of medical records. That night, Zhou, without any legal or medical reason, accessed and read his immediate supervisor’s medical records and those of other co-workers. For the next three weeks, Zhou’s continued his illegal accessing of patient records and expanded his illegal conduct to include confidential health records belonging to various celebrities. According to court documents, Zhou accessed the UCLA patient records system 323 times during the three-week period, with most of the accesses involving well known celebrities.
In a plea agreement filed today, Zhou admitted that he obtained and read private patient health and medical information on four specific occasions after he was formally terminated from the UCLA Healthcare System. Zhou acknowledged that at the time he viewed these patients’ medical information, he had no legitimate reason, medical or otherwise, for obtaining the personal information.
“There is a persistent problem with improper and illegal viewing of medical records by individuals who abuse the access they have as a result of their employment,” Acting United States Attorney George S. Cardona said. “HIPAA’s criminal privacy provisions protect not only celebrities, but all of us from curious neighbors, disgruntled co-workers, and other snoopers.”
Zhou is scheduled to appear in federal court on March 22 to be sentenced by Judge Wistrich. At sentencing, Zhou faces a maximum statutory penalty of four years in federal prison.
“The FBI is committed to investigating violations of HIPAA laws, the compromise of which can cause major financial or emotional distress,” said Steven M. Martinez, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI in Los Angeles. “These laws exist to protect the privacy that must be afforded to all patients, despite how intriguing that information might be to some with unworthy intentions.”
The UCLA Healthcare System, the UCLA School of Medicine and the UCLA Medical Group fully cooperated in the investigation, which was conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
CONTACT: Special Assistant United States Attorney Anthony R. Montero
Major Frauds Section, Health Care Fraud Unit
Assistant United States Attorney Consuelo S. Woodhead
Health Care Fraud Coordinator
Release No. 010-004