Parents of trans children ‘feel betrayed’ by Vanderbilt hospital
Medical center releases medical records, including those of transgender minors, to Tennessee Attorney General
Vanderbilt University Medical Center. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Vanderbilt University Medical Center notified patients over the weekend, including parents of transgender children, that it provided medical records to the state attorney general as part of a civil investigation into the hospital’s billing practices involving transgender care.
The hospital told patients it turned over records with the attorney general’s assurance that they would remain confidential as required by state law, notifications reviewed by the Lookout said. The transfer of confidential patient medical records was first detailed by The Tennessean.
Vanderbilt began providing patient records in December, a spokesperson for the Tennessee attorney general said Tuesday.
Chris Sanders, executive director of Tennessee Equality Project, said parents of transgender patients who have received care at Vanderbilt are “terrified and feel betrayed.”
“They weren’t warned before it happened. They were told after it happened,” over the Juneteenth holiday weekend, Sanders said. “There’s nothing hysterical about worrying about what might be done with this data in a state like Tennessee.”
A spokesperson for Vanderbilt declined to respond to questions about what specific legal mechanism the attorney general used to obtain the records — such as a subpoena, a civil investigative demand or something else — or whether hospital officials undertook any steps to legally withhold the information. The hospital also declined to answer questions about how many patients’ records have been provided.
(Patients) They weren’t warned before it happened. They were told after it happened. There’s nothing hysterical about worrying about what might be done with this data in a state like Tennessee.
– Chris Sanders, Tennessee Equality Project
Instead, a spokesperson released a statement saying it was obligated to provide the otherwise protected medical records.
“VUMC received requests from the Office of the Tennessee Attorney General as part of its investigation seeking information about transgender care at VUMC,” said John Howser, the medical center’s chief communications officer, in an emailed statement.
“The Tennessee Attorney General has legal authority in an investigation to require that VUMC provide complete copies of patient medical records that are relevant to its investigation. VUMC was obligated to comply and did so,” the statement said.
Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti hasn’t said how he will use the records and Skrmetti’s office similarly declined to respond to a series of questions, including his legal justification for pursuing the records.
A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office, however, said it will not make the records public and blamed Vanderbilt for causing an uproar.
“We are surprised that VUMC has deliberately chosen to frighten its patients like this,” said Brandon Smith, chief of staff for the Attorney General’s Office, in the statement.
The statement noted that the attorney general has been “investigating potential medical billing fraud by VUMC and certain related providers since September 2022.”
“The office does not publicize fraud investigations to preserve the integrity of the investigative process,” Smith said. “The office maintains patient records in the strictest confidence, as required by law. The investigation is focused solely on VUMC and certain related providers, not patients, as VUMC is well aware.”
The statement did not identify the other providers.
While Tennessee law gives the attorney general’s office authority to issue civil investigative demands for testimony and documents before filing a lawsuit, those demands may be challenged in court, narrowed through negotiation or refused — a stance that could force the attorney general to go to court, one legal expert said. Going to court would make attorney general’s demands public, potentially allowing for individuals with a stake in the records to intervene before they were provided.
Vanderbilt’s message to patients notes the Attorney General’s Office is investigating the hospital’s billing for transgender care services provided to patients enrolled in state-sponsored insurance plans. Medical records requested cover the time from Jan. 1, 2018 to the present, the hospital’s message said.
“The attorney general has legal authority to require medical providers, including VUMC, to provide copies of documents relevant to an investigation, including patient medical records,” the hospital’s message says.
The message points out the Attorney General’s Office isn’t allowed to disclose the medical records or make public use of them, “except in the discharge of its duties or in legal proceedings” involving the state. The hospital asked the office to return them when its investigation is finished and to destroy any copies it makes, the message said.
The hospital said it treats health records of patients, including those in the LGBTQIA community, as confidential under state and federal privacy laws and set up a phone line to take questions from those whose records were provided to the Attorney General’s Office.
“We regret that your records have become a part of the attorney general’s investigation and stand ready both to answer questions you may have and to continue to provide the care you need,” states the message from C. Wright Pinson, chief health systems officer for Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Sanders noted parents should be concerned about hospital records being turned over to the state, especially in light of events in Florida and Texas.
“We’d like the Vanderbilt Medical Center to really start standing up to the state,” Sanders said.
Texas Children’s Hospital illegally released records involving children and gender-affirming care to a person unaffiliated with the hospital. The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, then published the medical records, according to reports.
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