April 29, 2024 News

Watchdog Group Asks Washington Attorney General to Investigate Crisis Pregnancy Center for Deceptive Practices


Contact: Michael Clauw, mclauw@campaignforaccountability.org, 202.780.5750

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Campaign for Accountability (CfA), a non-profit watchdog group, filed a complaint with Washington Attorney General Robert Ferguson requesting an investigation into whether Whidbey Island Women’s Clinic (WIWC), an anti-choice ministry, has violated the Washington Consumer Protection Act and state law prohibiting misrepresentation by falsely asserting it complies with the Health Insurance Portability and Protection Act (HIPAA). The letter is one of five complaints CfA has filed alleging violations by so-called “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs) across the country, highlighting similar abuses in Idaho, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

CfA Executive Director Michelle Kuppersmith said, “The Washington legislature has recognized the importance of protecting healthcare information—particularly data related to reproductive healthcare—in passing the My Health My Data Act. Yet, WIWC persists in falsely suggesting to consumers it is bound by HIPAA to protect their data. Attorney General Ferguson should investigate whether WIWC is violating the state’s deceptive trade practices act and hold the organization accountable.”

Read CfA’s Complaint.

WIWC, located in Oak Harbor, Washington, is part of a network of thousands of CPCs affiliated with Care Net and Heartbeat International—multi-million-dollar organizations that intentionally target women searching for legitimate abortion care providers to “save babies” from abortion. In its articles of incorporation, WIWC (initially known as “The Crisis Pregnancy Center of Whidbey Island”) describes itself as “an outreach ministry of Jesus Christ through His church.” Its website does not list any medical providers.

Nevertheless, WIWC presents itself in many ways as a standard medical clinic featuring images of medical equipment on its website and posting medical information about pregnancy. WIWC’s website also asserts clients’ personal health information is protected by HIPAA. On its “Frequently Asked Questions” page, WIWC states “pregnancy-related services are considered confidential,” and minors “are protected by HIPAA and other privacy laws.”

Although HIPAA is relatively narrow in protecting the electronic transmission of health information for the purpose of medical billing, it has become consumer shorthand for confidentiality of medical data. WIWC appears to exploit this misconception, going so far as to instruct clients who believe their data has been misused to file a HIPAA complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services—even though HHS has no regulatory authority over WIWC.

It is unclear whether and to what extent WIWC shares the data it collects. In its “Notice of Privacy Practices,” the center states it may share patient data to “address…law enforcement and other government requests”—a particularly disturbing practice given some neighboring states’ desire to prosecute women who travel to access abortion services. Other inquiries into how CPCs use the data they collect have been stymied. For instance, despite pledging to respond to a letter from several senators requesting information about its data practices, Heartbeat International, through counsel, declined to explain how and with whom it shares data.

CfA’s complaint alleges WIWC’s false pledges of confidentiality appear to violate Washington’s Consumer Protection Act and state law prohibiting misrepresentation. If WIWC does not amend the language on its website by June 30, 2024, it also may violate the My Health My Data Act.

Ms. Kuppersmith continued, “Tricking women into believing their sensitive health information will be kept confidential by claiming it is HIPAA covered when it is not, isn’t just despicable, it’s deceptive in a way that likely violates the law. Attorney General Ferguson should not hesitate to take on those who prey on women and minors with disingenuous claims of confidentiality.”

Campaign for Accountability is a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization that uses research, litigation, and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life and hold those who act at the expense of the public good accountable for their actions.