Should Private Medical History be Revealed During Bankruptcy? A Tough Case in Wisconsin is Bringing the Issue to Light

Submitted by Jen Jones on Fri, 01/08/2010 - 10:34am

Should Private Medical History be Revealed During Bankruptcy? A Tough Case in Wisconsin is Bringing the Issue to Light

Bankruptcy should not be an embarrassing process. It's bad enough the credit industry has surrounded it with negative stereotypes to make people believe it's a life-altering decision.

However, for a number of people in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, filing Chapter 13 has become a series of perpetual embarrassments and ceaseless frustration as a result of a healthcare provider making public the medical conditions of patients who have filed for protection when their bills became too much to manage.

A 53-year-old college admissions employee filed Chapter 13 in an effort to clean up a difficult financial period of her life. Susan Dandridge understood that a good deal of private financial information will become public record. However, she did not count on an extensive list of her personal medical conditions being included in the claims filed by Aurora Health Care, a regional medical center to which she became indebted.

When she found out her privacy had been violated, she pursued legal action. In turn, a class action lawsuit was filed as it was revealed that Aurora had done the same thing with other patients' billing records when submitting bankruptcy information.

This very compelling case not only brings to light once more the role medical bills play in the nation's personal bankruptcy rate but also introduces the question about what medical information, considered private under HIPPAA laws, can be revealed during the bankruptcy process.

HIPPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, requires strict public protection of an individual's health history by the entities that handle it, such as insurance companies and hospitals. Essentially, it is in place to protect citizens when medical information is transferred between health care providers or when people switch insurance companies. It is a private entity's responsibility to protect your medical past.

Unfortunately, in Ms. Dandridge's case, medical information became very public. Although those specific records have since been sealed, her suit contends they were available for months prior to her realizing they had been exposed. The suit also claims Aurora intentionally disclosed the records because of her inability to pay. Thus, her medical privacy was egregiously violated and, according to the lawsuit, the organization's actions left her open to medical identity theft.

The lawsuit contends that Aurora could have filed summary information as a way to protect the consumers' medical background while still adhering to state and federal medical privacy laws. However, the Wisconsin Hospital Association has jumped into the mix, stating that Dandridge's attorney misinterpreted the law and that such information can be revealed in matters of billing and collections.

The realization that the information was made public came after a separate trustee in a Chapter 7 case noticed the amount of detail in Aurora's claims and initiated legal action that eventually ended in a settlement. From there, the issue spiraled throughout the community and to those who had financial issues with the organization.

It does not matter whether or not anyone found or used for ill will the medical information revealed in the claims. The mere exposure of them is enough to constitute harm, according to Dandrige's attorney. He also argues that now that the information is "out there" it is subject to additional exposure by third party companies who scan and archive court records.

It is the hope of Ms. Dandridge and the other class members that the practice of including conditions and reason for treatment in the collections and bankruptcy process be halted on a national level.

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