Patient Records Found In Dumpster

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Medical records from Dr. Mark Mouritsen's office were discovered by Payson Police in a dumpster near his former residence on North Granite Drive.

Mouritsen, who now lives in Springerville, said he had secured the files and planned to pick them up. How they ended up in a dumpster on May 21, is a mystery to Mouritsen.

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Mouritsen

"Let me just say this -- I did not throw the charts in a dumpster," Mouritsen said. "They were secured at my house, i.e. locked doors like you would secure your television. And I was going to pick them up."

Payson Police Det. Jason Hazelo wants to know then why these medical documents ended up in the trash.

"The house had been turned over to the new owner," Hazelo said. "They couldn't have been secured -- they were in a dumpster."

Mouritsen closed his practice after he and his wife, Carolyn, were arrested in 2004 for obtaining prescription narcotics by fraudulent means. A four-month investigation by Payson police determined that Mouritsen and his wife were writing prescriptions for painkillers and getting a portion of the drugs back for personal use.

Mouritsen was sentenced to six years probation in a plea agreement with the county attorney. Carolyn is serving a 180-day jail term and will be on probation for three years.

Although the Arizona Medical Board is allowing Mouritsen to continue practicing medicine, he must work in a group setting and cannot prescribe certain scheduled drugs.

The mystery of the trashed records started more than a month ago when Payson Police received an anonymous tip that Mouritsen's files had been discarded in a dumpster near his recently sold home.

Mouritsen said it was a complete surprise to him when he learned that the patient records were in a trash dumpster. "Before I knew it, I received a call telling me the police had found the records in the trash. I was appalled. I have no idea how they got in the trash. I would never throw them in the trash."

Hazelo said the new owner had thrown away personal items left behind in the Mouritsen home.

"It was a big walk-in dumpster and it was about half full and the files were under a bunch of garbage and debris," Payson Police Sgt. Todd Bramlett said. "They appeared to include medical information including things like colonoscopy photographs with people's names written on them --people's entire files right down to the most personal things."

According to the police report, the new owner contacted Mouritsen a week before the discovery of the records.

The owner told officers that Mouritsen wanted to remove his car from the garage, never mentioning a desire to remove the medical records stored there also.

Officers later retrieved the files from the dumpster and stored them in a locked room for safekeeping.

Bramlett said the improper disposal may be a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), which imposes restrictions on dissemination of certain health information.

According to the HIPAA statute, a person found guilty of a violation can be fined from $50,000 to $250,000 and/or receive a prison sentence of one to 10 years.

The severity of the sentence is based on the circumstances and intent of the violation -- was the medical information obtained under false pretenses or for the purpose of profit?

The Roundup contacted the HIPAA hotline and was told that victims must file written complaints to start an investigation, and an investigator will review the case for potential violations.

Bureaucratic quagmire

Following the discovery, Payson Police Chief Gordon Gartner said the department would keep the records until they can determine whether a criminal investigation is warranted.

Hazelo made calls to the Arizona Medical Board, HIPAA, the Attorney General's Office and the Drug Enforcement Agency -- none of the agencies were interested in taking possession of the files.

"No one believes there is anything criminal here," Hazelo said. "The federal prosecutor I spoke to said it was a civil issue. The civilian who threw the records away is not liable for anything -- it's the physician's responsibility."

The Attorney General's Office agreed that this matter is a civil issue.

Payson police received a letter on June 6 from the Executive Director of the Arizona Medical Board stating that the board is only interested in taking possession of the records in the event of a criminal investigation,

HIPAA also declined to establish whether a violation had occurred. In the absence of any charges or violations, the state medical board instructed police to return the files to Mouritsen.

Arrangements were made for Mouritsen to pick up the documents June 15.

Mouritsen expressed his gratitude to the Payson Police Department for retrieving the records. "I do have the records in my possession," he said.

Mouritsen told the Roundup that if patients want their records returned or transferred, they should not contact him.

"If patients need their charts, they should go to their primary care physicians and see if they need those records," Mouritsen said. "If their primary care physician needs the records, they know how to get a hold of me and know how to get copies of their records. Patients don't typically just go get their medical records and have them at home."

Meanwhile, the incident has caught the attention of Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores who said she has one of her attorneys looking into possible HIPAA violations or criminal acts.

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