Medical, dental records found in church recycling dumpster
Thousands of patient records found by our 13 Investigates team are now in the hands of state investigators.
Late Tuesday afternoon, special agents with the attorney general's office picked up boxes loaded with thousands of sensitive, personal documents. We found the sensitive information dumped at an Indianapolis church parking lot.
Recycling is a great idea, except when it's private patient information being recycled in a public recycling bin. 13 Investigates got a call to a recycling dumpster in the parking lot of a south side church after the church secretary noticed something strange inside.
"Oh, my goodness, what do we have here? It's appalling. Somebody thought they could drive here and dump it and not get caught," said Elizabeth Fox, Olive Branch Christian Church.
What we discovered inside the dumpsters were thousands of patient files all containing names, addresses, phone numbers, birthdates, Social Security numbers, X-rays, medical histories, dental information, credit card numbers and more.
13 Investigates loaded up the files - nearly 7,000 of them - and brought them back to our studio to figure out where they came from. It turns out all of the records are from two dental clinics - Comfort Dental offices in Kokomo and Marion.
The Comfort Dental offices in Marion and in Kokomo are now closed. The dentist who ran these offices lost his dental license because of fraudulent billing. Now, a year and half later, more bad news for his patients.
Janet Christie is shocked to learn her family's dental records and private information were just dumped instead of being destroyed.
"That's us. Wow," she said, shaking her head in disbelief. "I'm disappointed. I'm angry. This is just very upsetting. I can't believe it. I wouldn't think it would ever happen to me."
Ben Moses feels the same way after we found all of his family's dental records inside the dumpster.
"This was a shock to say the least," he said. "It seems like anybody could have walked by, seen what was in there and walked off with my personal information. I would expect information like this to be shredded, to be disposed of properly," said Moses.
So why didn't that happen? And how did almost 7,000 records get from that empty office to a full dumpster in Indianapolis?
13 Investigates went to the Zionsville home of Dr. Joseph Beck to get answers. He was not home and he has not returned our messages. Legal experts say patient security breaches like this will be hard to explain away.
"Can you think of a any logical explanation for why these were where they were?" 13 Investigates asked privacy expert Joan Antokol.
"Absolutely not. There's state laws that protect patients against this as well as federal laws. It's inconceivable that a practicing professional with a graduate degree wouldn't know about those laws that have been in place since 2003," said Antokol.
Antokol says the penalties for these violations can be very steep.
"The penalties range from $100 per violation up to $50,000," she said.
That's up to $50,000 per record, and we found nearly 7,000 of them. The files are now in the hands of the Indiana Attorney General's office. Investigators picked them up from Channel 13 this afternoon to begin their own investigation.
See the Indiana attorney general's page concerning abandoned records, and what to do if you're a former patient.
If you believe you may have records that are part of those recovered, you may file a written request to retrieve the record(s).
Download the Abandoned Records Request Form or request the form be mailed to you by calling 1-800-382-5516.
Consumers that file a formal request will receive notification by mail to confirm whether or not the individual's personal records are being held by the state.
Are you concerned that your health privacy has been violated? File a report here.
Prescription Privacy - See our investigation from 2006-2007 that prompted companies to address the way your personal health information is handled.
Here is a side note from investigative reporter Bob Segall, providing some background for those asking why WTHR collected the information before contacting the attorney general's office.
Six years ago, when WTHR found protected health information in drug store dumpsters all over central Indiana, we contacted law enforcement while on the scene. Police told us they would not respond to a situation like that. We then tried the state pharmacy board (its prosecuting arm is the AG's office) and were told the board would not send anyone to the location because it did not have the manpower to do so. A representative at the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights literally laughed when we asked if they would send someone from its Chicago regional office to see what we discovered. Let's be clear - what we found was a violation of both state and federal law. Yet no one responsible for enforcing those laws would come to the scene to collect it. So WTHR continued to gather all of the information we could find, then we reported on it.
All of sudden, those same agencies were very interested. They still would not send someone to the dumpsters to do what we had done. But once we had all the evidence in a clean, safe environment, THEN they wanted to see it. More important, they then felt compelled to prosecute because they were under media scrutiny to hold someone responsible. While the vast majority of HIPAA violations result in no action whatsoever, those cases resulted in record settlements and major policy changes.
Since then, I have gotten at least 6-8 calls and emails each year from viewers who contact me with the same story: they have called police to tell them about sensitive, legally-protected information they discovered in dumpsters, and police told them to call the MEDIA to report it. Seem bizarre? It does to me. But the reality is most police agencies do not have the time, interest and/or resources to pursue these cases.
So this week, when we heard there may be thousands of patient records in a southside recycle bin, THAT is why we responded the way we did. Should the info go to the AG's office, local police or the feds? Absolutely. Past experience tells us the way to best protect this info and to get action is to do exactly what we did.