U.S. Sen. Al Franken, during a field hearing Wednesday, questioned executives from Chicago-based Accretive Health Inc. and Minneapolis-based Fairview Health Services about Accretive's debt collection work for two hospital systems, Fairview and North Memorial Health Care.

The hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is the result of an unencrypted laptop with private information on 23,500 patients being stolen from an Accretive employee's car. Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson's office sued Accretive in January (see story), for alleged violations of health privacy, debt collection and consumer protection laws - saying it did not keep health care records for tens of thousands of patients confidential.

Franken says he will pursue legislation or federal regulations requiring encryption of all laptops containing private medical information. At the hearing, he asked why an Accretive employee, Matthew Doyle, had patient information on the laptop stolen from his car when he worked on the revenue side of the company, where access to records is supposed to be restricted.

"I don't understand why Mr. Doyle had all that information. The law says that Accretive may give its employees, and you just said it does, only the minimum amount of data necessary for them to do their jobs," Franken said.

Greg Kazarian, senior vice president and corporate responsibility manager at Accretive, responded that Doyle had both claims data and a separate file "in connection with his work coming up to speed in our area in our work in quality and total cost of care," a separate business area with greater access to patient data.

"He didn't work in that, though, did he?" Franken said.

"No, he did not, sir," Kazarian said.

"So he would only need that information if he did work in that," said Franken, adding, "Here this information was left in a laptop in plain view."

Meanwhile, Kazarian apologized to patients "who experienced any interaction with us or with our Fairview colleagues that lacked compassion and professionalism." He defended Accretive's work, which includes pressing insurance companies to pay and helping patients obtain insurance.

Last month, Attorney General Swanson released a report stating that Accretive allegedly placed employees in emergency rooms, cancer wards and delivery rooms to extract payments from patients before they were seen by medical staff. According to the attorney general's investigation, Accretive provided lengthy scripts that employees were told to follow to get credit card charges or cash payments before treatment at Fairview's network of seven hospitals.

Fairview's interim CEO, Charles Mooty, apologized for the heavy-handed collection efforts and said Fairview has stopped collecting past-due balances and co-payments in emergency departments.

"To those patients, I offer my personal apology and firm commitment on behalf of the entire organization to regain your trust," Mooty said during the hearing.

After Swanson's lawsuit, Fairview terminated its contract with Accretive. Fairview's CEO Mark Eustis retired last week.

Franken said he would investigate whether a new law or a change in regulations is needed to force health care companies to encrypt laptops with protected health information.

Hospitals must get paid for the services they provide, he said. But at the same time, he said, they must stop short of badgering patients.

 

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