NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Vanderbilt University Medical Center is facing a federal civil rights investigation after turning the medical records of transgender patients over to Tennessee’s attorney general, hospital officials have confirmed.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ investigation comes just weeks after two patients sued VUMC for releasing their records to Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti late last year.
“We have been contacted by and are working with the Office of Civil Rights,” spokesperson John Howser said in a statement late Thursday. “We have no further comment since this is an ongoing investigation.”
VUMC has come under fire for waiting months before telling patients in June that their medical information was shared late last year, acting only after the existence of the requests emerged as evidence in another court case. The news sparked alarm for many families living in the ruby red state where GOP lawmakers have sought to ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth and limit LGBTQ rights.
The patients suing over the release of their information say VUMC should have removed personally identifying information before turning over the records because the hospital was aware of Tennessee authorities’ hostile attitude toward the rights of transgender people.
Many of the patients who had their private medical information shared with Skrmetti’s office are state workers, or their adult children or spouses; others are on TennCare, the state’s Medicaid plan; and some were not even patients at VUMC’s clinic that provides transgender care.
“The more we learn about the breadth of the deeply personal information that VUMC disclosed, the more horrified we are,” said attorney Tricia Herzfeld, who is representing the patients. “Our clients are encouraged that the federal government is looking into what happened here.”
HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the civil rights investigation.
Meanwhile, Skrmetti has maintained he only requested the VUMC patient records because he’s involved in a “run of the mill” investigation over possible medical billing fraud and that he is not targeting patients or their families.
Yet Skrmetti has continued to attract skepticism from Democratic lawmakers and civil rights advocates after he joined a group of Republican attorneys general in opposing a proposed federal rule that would limit how law enforcement and state officials collect the medical records of those who flee their home state to receive abortion services or transgender health care.
Skrmetti is also defending the state’s gender-affirming care ban for transgender youth and has repeatedly praised a federal appeals court decision to allow the law to temporarily go into effect.
Skrmetti’s office says they had “not heard anything” about the civil rights investigation.
“Turning a disagreement about the law into a federal investigation would be plainly retaliatory and would reflect a dangerous politicization of federal law enforcement,” said spokesperson Amy Wilhite.
An earlier version of this report had an incorrect first name for Vanderbilt University Medical Center spokesperson John Howser.