A staff member at a clinic who stole the protected health information of mentally ill patients and sold the data to identity thieves for profit has fail in an appeal to get a five-year jail term lessened.
Jean Baptiste Alvarez, aged 43, of Aldan, PA, obtained daily census sheets from the Kirkbride Center, a 267-bed behavioral health care facility located in Philadelphia. The census sheets included all the information required to steal the identities of patients and submit fraudulent tax returns in their names – Names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth along with other personally identifiable information.
Alvarez had the chance to obtain the data without being detected, as the area where the sheets were kept did not have security cameras in operation.
Alvarez was paid $1,000 per census sheet by his to-co-conspirators, who used the data to complete 164 fraudulent tax returns in the names of the patients, resulting to a loss of $232,612 in tax revenue for the IRS.
Early in 2016, Alvarez was found to be guilty of conspiracy to defraud, improper use of Social Security numbers, and aggravated identity theft. The latter carried a minimum sentence of two years. The maximum punishment sentence for all counts was 24 years in jail, a maximum of three years of supervised release, and a potential fine.
Judge Michael M. Baylson invoked the vulnerable victim enhancement, and Alvarez was given a five-year jail sentence for his crimes, three years of supervised release, was ordered to pay $266,985 in restitution, and a $500 special assessment fine.
Alvarez appealed the sentence imposed claiming it was unusually harsh as his victims were not “vulnerable.” He also remarked that he did not target the patients due to the fact they were mentally ill and had drug addiction issues. He only stole the information because he had access to it.
However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit threw out his appeal to have the sentence lessened, ruling that Alvarez’s argument had no merit. The victims were suffering from mental health and additional issues and were vulnerable. Judge D. Michael Fisher also commented that since the patients were not employed, the IRS was unlikely to detect the fraud as there would not be any duplicate claim. The patients would similarly be unlikely to see they had been defrauded due to their mental health problems. The 5-year jail term will be applied as a result these findings.
The is a timely reminder to healthcare employees that accessing patients’ personal information can lead to lengthy jail sentences. The Department of Justice is aggressively chasing cases of PHI theft , identity theft, and tax fraud at present and is punishing criminals using the full extent of the law allowable.