RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Federal authorities have launched an investigation concerning Republican State Senate candidate Dr. Siobhan Dunnavant, after a complaint alleged the Henrico doctor used her private patient information to solicit contributions, volunteers and votes.
The investigation is being led by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights. The Department's regional bureau in Philadelphia confirmed the ongoing investigation.
At the center of the inquiry are letters and emails from Dunnavant to her patients, announcing her intention to run for Virginia's 12th District Senate seat. The letters reassured patients the quality of their care would not be affected if voters elected Dunnavant to represent the West End of Henrico and western Hanover County.
However, concerns were raised when the letters, paid for by Friends of Siobhan Dunnavant, included several ways for her OB/GYN patients to become involved in the doctor's campaign.
A violation of HIPAA, the federal act protecting security of patient records, may have occurred if the addresses were reviewed by anyone outside of Dr. Dunnavant's medical practice.
"I would LOVE for you to be involved," Dunnavant wrote. "You can connect and get information on my website. There you can sign up to get information, a bumper sticker or yard sign and volunteer."
"It would also be wonderful if you liked the campaign Facebook page and asked all your friends to like it too," she added.
The separate emails to patients outlined Dunnavant's campaign platform, plans to fight against Obamacare, and specifically identified the correspondence as a campaign email.
"My friends, I am not sending you this email to ask for money (although we all know it would help)," Dunnavant wrote before the June primary election. "I am sending you this email to tell you who I am. I'm not a politician – I'm a doctor. My experience is not in writing campaign emails, my experience is in problem solving… On June 9th, I ask for your vote."
The emails also indicate that they are "paid for by Friends of Siobhan Dunnavant."
Federal investigators are now reviewing whether Dunnavant compromised private patient information, using a confidential address list to benefit her campaign.
In an interview Wednesday, a patient who wished to remain anonymous said she was dismayed to read the content of the letter from the doctor.
"I've had complete trust in her for 10 years," the patient said. "But that adds to my concern and disillusion about receiving a letter like this from her."
After multiple requests to interview Dunnavant, campaign spokesman Jonathan Carman declined to answer whether medical staff or an outside group handled the patient list.
In an email Tuesday, Carman said the campaign is comfortable with its actions taken, and ensured that communications were appropriate with all applicable guidelines.
"Also, I should note that neither Dr. Dunnavant nor our campaign has received any such notice from the Department of Health & Human Services to date."
Conservative blogger Thomas White, editor of varight.com, first received a copy of one of Dunnavant's letters in May. White was the first to report on the issues raised by the letters, and then filed a complaint with the federal government.
After nearly four months, an investigator with the Department of Health and Human Services responded to White's complaint, indicating the doctor's actions would be examined.
"You allege that Dr. Dunnavant impermissibly used the protected health information of her patients," wrote Barbara J. Holland, the regional manager of the Department.
"We have carefully reviewed your allegation and are initiating an investigation to determine if there has been a failure to comply with the requirements of the applicable regulation."
White said in an interview Wednesday that although he is a lifetime Republican, he could not turn a blind eye to conduct he believed was wrong.
"Our politicians need to be held accountable for their actions, and that's either as a legislator or lawmaker, or during the campaign," White said.
"And I believe Siobhan Dunnavant did not measure up to these standards by using her patient database for political purposes."
Dunnavant faces two challengers in the Nov. 3 election, Democratic candidate Deborah Repp and Independent Scott Johnson.
The 12th Senate District leans Republican, with Dunnavant leading fundraising at $496,266. The Repp and Johnson campaigns have raised $58,678 and $1,031, respectively.
Dunnavant is endorsed by State Senator Walter Stosch, the popular Republican who represented the 12th District for more than 23 years. Stosch decided against a run for reelection early this year.
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