HEALTH PLANS: Kaiser’s Gadfly hits the big time

Those of you with memories that stretch back to the dog days of summer last year may remember the somewhat curious incident of the Kaiser Permanente Thrive campaign coming up in THCB. If you missed it, here’s a brief recap.

KP has been running a $40m advertising campaign in California and elsewhere under the tag line "Thrive". By the way, the voiceover is done by everyone’s favorites Presidential spokesperson (No, not Fitzwater, Myers or McLellan–CJ Cregg!)  Quite what the campaign has to do with the delivery of health care I have no idea, but that’s why I was thrown out of advertising finishing school. It seems to me no better or worse than any other corporate makeover campaign, and as KP is in general on the side of the angels it didn’t worry me too much.

However, there are a bunch of people who do have reasons rightly or wrongly for disliking Kaiser, and this small group of dissidents discovered quite a treasure trove of base sloppiness. For example, the URL KaiserThrive was never reserved by KP, so the dissidents took it and launched a parody campaign called "Thieves" on it. Then they discovered some of the strategy documents linked with the campaign on an openly available web site, and copied and posted them on their website. Finally, they discovered a KP web site (or possibly one of its contractor’s sites) that had reams of KP’s diagrams and blue prints for its HealthConnect EMR project–which are all presumably proprietary and at least somewhat confidential. This site was also mirrored by a couple of KP gadflys (long after it was put up on the web originally).

I posted about this on August 30, 2004 and lo and behold a few days later that KP site with the wiring diagrams was taken down. None of this in my view contained damaging internal documents of the "Dodgeball"  style that Merck was exposed for earlier this year. But apparently I didn’t look hard enough.  Somewhere buried in all the wiring diagrams was some patient information, which the anti-KP Gadfly had assumed was test data.  Apparently not. According to KP, there are some 140 identifiable patient records in there somewhere. This week Kaiser sent a cease and desist notice to the Gadfly (which was sent on to me) asking for the removal of all web pages, and stating that the Gadfly had broken the employment agreement signed when joining KP. The letter also threatened prison time, huge fines et al.

It’s a bit ironic that KP has pulled out the big legal guns on this. and got The story is the SJ Mercury News today, (correction posted roughtly 4.15pm PST Friday after I was contacted by Barbar Feder, the SJ Merc journo who wrote the story) amazingly enough not because Kaiser leaked it to put pressure on the gadfly, but because one of the 140 patients they called was a member of the Merc staff and got a call about it! Barbara thereafter contacted the KP public relations people and extracted the story out of them as well as finding the Gadfly’s blog and getting some comments from her. It is still nonetheless ironic for Kaiser to be calling out the legal big guns because the when you consider that the patients they are panicking by telling them that their information is on the web have had it sitting there since at least 2002. There is clear evidence at this URL that the site was publicly up as of 2002, and I know it was available to be looked at on the web until at least August 30, 2003 2004 (typo corrected), because I went to look at it then. I must stress that I didn’t know that there was any patient data in it, and in wandering around the mirror site (you’ll have to go to the Corporate Ethics blog to discover the link as THCB is too lilly-livered to link directly!) I never found any patient data. But presumably I was looking in the wrong place.

According to the Corporate Ethics site, the Gadfly in one of her attempts to get at Kaiser tried to get them for a HIPAA privacy violation because of this posting, but apparently they were cleared of this. It’s quite amusing really that they are now coming after her for the same thing for which they apparently were not guilty.

When you dig a little deeper, this is a typical story of a lack of common sense in corporate policy. Like the McLibel trial in the UK when McDondald’s stupidly went after two penniless anarchists for passing out leaflets about their food being inedible and blew $10m in legal fees and all its goodwill in Europe in the process, or a recent case of a friend of mine whose job offer at Carly’s HP was withdrawn because of a one word discrepancy on a background check from Choicepoint (yeah, that trustworthy bunch)  with NO-ONE at HP’s human resources group having the nous to investigate and find out the truth, Kaiser is not stopping to think about how to resolve this issue sensibly. The Gadfly is an ex-employee who was fired and has since seen her financial life go into cataclsym.

The Gadfly is flat broke, and said in a private email to me that she’d welcome jail time as it would get her health care coverage!  So why did Kaiser fire her? Obviously there are two sides to that story, but is there no way that they can make it up to her and come to a reasonable settlement without pushing her and themselves to all these extremes? This is not good PR for what’s generally a noble organization, and some of the grown-ups there need to get hold of this whole issue pretty quickly. Perhaps if a senior KP person took it upon themselves to have a fair review of the case, and figure out a way to make a reasonable settlement, their organization’s own sloppiness wouldn’t have to become a major fiasco.  At the least presumably they can get her some of the health care coverage she needs at a price they can afford!. Right now the Gadfly is finally welcoming the attention, and if KP keeps pushing this way it’s likely to get much worse for them before it gets better.

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