Lisa Segal prays that those who inadvertently obtained the names of New Jerseyans approved by the state to buy medical marijuana will maintain the privacy she says those seriously ill patients deserve.
The state Department of Health apologized Wednesday for an e-mail sent to more than 400 marijuana program participants in which the recipients' e-mail addresses were plainly visible. Some addresses incorporated the patients' full names.
"I was shocked," said Segal, of Wenonah, a program participant who noted that her previous interactions with the agency had been positive. "I'm a nurse and I know it's a gross invasion of privacy."
Segal, 61, said she believed the information was protected under the federal privacy laws known as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), passed in 1996. If the marijuana clients's identities become widely known, she fears they could be discriminated against, especially by employers.
Segal has been approved to receive prescription marijuana to manage pain and discomfort from multiple sclerosis. Like hundreds of others, she is waiting to obtain the drug from the state's only dispensary currently open for business, Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair.
The Tuesday e-mail advised patients that Greenleaf, which opened Dec. 6, would contact them directly for appointments. All of the recipients' addresses were visible.
Hours later, the apology arrived.
"The Medicinal Marijuana Program inadvertently sent an insensitive message that mistakenly disclosed patient e-mail addresses to other participants in the program," read the statement.
"The department sincerely apologizes for the error and has taken immediate steps to ensure this does not happen again."
The gaffe is the latest controversy associated with the program. Only patients with chronic illness, such as terminal cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, and AIDS can be approved by certified doctors to receive the drug. Patients have complained that the law is too restrictive, hinders access, and sets the potency of the drug unnecessarily low.
Daniel Emmer, a Health Department spokesman, said in an e-mail that 411 patients had been approved to participate in the program. As of Wednesday, Greenleaf had dispensed marijuana to 47 patients, he said.
In the first e-mail, the agency detailed the process to obtain marijuana and urged people to remain patient as they awaited a call from Greenleaf to receive the drug.
The marijuana program's customer service unit "is not an avenue [to the drug], nor will it tolerate . . . abusive patients," the e-mail warned, an apparent reference to the tone of calls it has received from frustrated program participants.
Segal said the e-mail was "rude" and suggested state officials brush up on their customer service skills. A tutorial on health privacy laws wouldn't hurt either, she said.
In a message to his fellow e-mail recipients, Segal said that one medical marijuana patient advised that he had contacted a lawyer.