Kaiser’s health plan and foundation hospitals will pay $49 million to settle claims brought by the state Department of Justice and six county district attorneys that the healthcare giant illegally disposed of hazardous and medical waste and patient health information, Attorney General Rob Bonta announced Friday.
“The illegal disposal of hazardous and medical waste puts the environment, workers, and the public at risk,” Bonta said. “As a healthcare provider, Kaiser should know that it has specific legal obligations to properly dispose of medical waste and safeguard patients’ medical information. I am pleased that Kaiser has been cooperative with my office and the district attorneys’ offices, and that it took immediate action to address the alleged violations.”
The settlement is the result of undercover inspections conducted by the district attorneys’ offices of dumpsters from 16 different Kaiser facilities. During those inspections, the district attorneys’ offices examined contents of unsecured dumpsters destined for disposal at publicly accessible landfills.
They found hundreds of items of hazardous and medical waste — aerosols, cleansers, sanitizers, batteries, electronic wastes, syringes, medical tubing with body fluids, and pharmaceuticals — and over 10,000 paper records containing the information of over 7,700 patients.
The Department of Justice joined the district attorneys and expanded the investigation of Kaiser’s disposal practices throughout the state. Kaiser hired a consultant and conducted over 1,100 trash audits at its facilities in an effort to improve compliance, and also modified its operating procedures to improve its handling, storage, and disposal of waste.
Oakland-based Kaiser operates more than 700 facilities statewide, making it the largest healthcare provider in California, providing healthcare to 8.8 million Californians, as well as members of the public who seek emergency from its facilities. Joining Bonta in announcing the settlement were district attorneys of Alameda, San Bernardino, San Francisco, San Joaquin, San Mateo, and Yolo counties.
“As a major corporation in Alameda County, Kaiser Permanente has a special obligation to treat its communities with the same bedside manner as its patients,” Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price said. “Dumping medical waste and private information are wrong, which they have acknowledged. This action will hold them accountable in such a way that we hope means it doesn’t happen again.”
San Mateo County District Attorney Stephen M. Wagstaffe said that “as the largest healthcare provider in the state, Kaiser has an extraordinary responsibility to the public and to its own patients to ensure that hazardous waste, potentially infectious human waste materials, and highly sensitive patient health information are handled according to state laws and not sent to municipal landfills not equipped to handle those wastes.”
The settlement includes $37.5 million in civil penalties, $4.8 million in attorneys’ fees and costs and $4.9 million primarily for environmental prosecutor training. Kaiser also must spend $3.5 million on enhanced environmental compliance measures at its California facilities over the next five years or face an additional $1.75 million penalty. And the company must retain an independent auditor to perform trash compactor and field audits at Kaiser’s California facilities over the next five years.
The justice department noted that Kaiser has been the subject of prior enforcement actions by local prosecutors for mismanagement of regulated wastes, and paid $150,000 to resolve a state complaint over delay in notifying its employees about an unencrypted USB drive left at a Santa Cruz thrift store containing more than 20,000 employee records.
Check back for more on this developing story.