George Mathewson and Troy Shantz
Hospital officials admit they may never know why doctor prescription pads were left in the former Sarnia General Hospital, but they believe all confidential information has now been removed from the building.
An undisclosed number of prescription pads identifying former patients and patient details between 1999 and 2006 were retrieved by police on Jan. 18 after being stolen from the derelict building, which is entered regularly by vandals and thrill-seekers.
Bluewater Health is continuing to work with Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner on the patient record breach, said Julia Oosterman, the hospital’s chief of communications & public affairs.
“Rest assured this is a top priority. In addition to investigating patient privacy concerns, we’re also investigating how this happened,” she said.
“The reality is that we may never know.”
At least one room in the vacant building still contained boxes of old hospital records as recently as late December, The Journal has learned.
The archived material missed by earlier security sweeps included binders and paperwork, as well as old data cassette cartridges and tapes once used to back up computer systems.
It’s not clear if the doctor prescription pads came from the same area.
At least one open cardboard box containing paperwork and recording tapes was clearly marked with a printed label reading: “Confidential Media; To Be Securely Destroyed.”
When asked about that confidential data, Oosterman said it’s her understanding everything involving patient information has now been found and removed.
“All of our teams … have gone in and confirmed that there is nothing. There is no confidential information in the building to the best of our knowledge,” she said.
A 30-year-old woman, of no fixed address, has been charged with break and enter and possession of stolen property in connection with the stolen prescription pads.
Sarnia General closed in 2011 after its operations merged with St. Joseph’s Hospital to create Bluewater Health.
The city long maintained it wasn’t responsible for the building but did own the land, until the Ontario Superior Court disagreed last May and declared Sarnia the legal owner of both.
Until recently, Bluewater Health had been paying $400,000 annually for maintenance and security.
After butting heads in court, the hospital and the city are working together to find a solution for the site, Oosterman said.
“There was just a recognition on both parts, with both parties, that we have a common goal and we can do great things when we work together,” she said.
“We both have an obligation to Sarnians.”
Complicating the issue is the Ontario government’s refusal to pay for the building’s demolition, which has been estimated at $8.8 million.
In the meantime, people are routinely entering the unsafe structure, which contains asbestos and has been damaged by vandals, metal thieves and explosives used during military training exercises.
During a recent sweep of the building a local asbestos abatement company assisted hospital staff and Sarnia Police to ensure they were properly outfitted to enter.
Yet unauthorized people continue to enter the building on “an almost daily basis,” said resident Mike Hurray, who lives across the street.
“Around Halloween, there were literally carloads of people the one night, dressed in dark colours, getting out of cars and going in the hospital. I’m sure they’re just going in there to have Halloween games in the building,” he said.
The city and hospital security have made many efforts to secure the building, he added, but it’s done little to deter those determined to enter.
Some climb up on the roof, gain access through a window and unlock a door from the inside.
“We’ve got to be really hopeful that a kid doesn’t get seriously injured in that building, or worse,” Hurry said.
“One day I saw two teenage girls coming out of the building – I figured they weren’t more than 14 – with a guy that looked like he was in his late 20s. You tell me what they were doing in that building.”
Entrances around the perimeter have been welded shut, which proved a problem for city fire crews responding to a fire inside on Nov. 17, said Mayor Mike Bradley.
“This council needs to get a plan to get the building to a point that it’s not a liability,” he said.
“This has gone on too long.”
Sarnia is issuing a request for proposals on Feb. 10 for developers interested in the hospital property and nearby former health unit building.
Potential investors have until May 31 to submit a proposal.