ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP/WCCO) — U.S. Sen. Al Franken said Wednesday he plans to pursue legislation or federal regulations requiring encryption of all laptops containing private medical information, after presiding over a hearing on aggressive debt collection practices in several Minnesota hospitals.

Franken questioned executives from Chicago-based Accretive Health Inc. and Minneapolis-based Fairview Health Services about Accretive’s work to maximize revenue for Fairview and North Memorial Health Care. The issue came to light when an unencrypted laptop containing private information for 23,500 patients was stolen from an Accretive employee’s car.

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After a wide-ranging investigation, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson sued Accretive in January for alleged violations of health privacy, debt collection and consumer protection laws. Swanson also relayed stories of patients being pressured to pay while waiting for medical care, sometimes in emergency rooms.

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. After Swanson’s lawsuit, Fairview terminated its contract with Accretive.

“To those patients, I offer my personal apology and firm commitment on behalf of the entire organization to regain your trust,” Mooty said during a field hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Greg Kazarian, senior vice president and corporate responsibility manager at Accretive, 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. A senior vice president told the Senate committee that debt collection represents 1 percent of its activities.

“Unfortunately, we’ve been portrayed in a way that distorts and misrepresents our business and our work,” he said.

Franken read parts of an email from an Accretive employee who called patients “deadbeats” and “stupid,” and Kazarian said that employee was fired as soon as higher-ups learned of the message.

Franken asked why another 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.

Kazarian 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.

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“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.”

Patients also testified Wednesday about being pressed for money while waiting for medical care.

Tom Fuller, of New Brighton, regularly went to Fairview University Hospital for follow-up care after a lung transplant early in 2011. He said he was surprised when he went in for a procedure in November and was sent into a room where a man went over his paperwork, presented a bill for $500 and asked him to pay his “outstanding balance.”

“We were unaware of any past-due amount, and I just felt badgered,” Fuller said. “Finally he said, ‘Well, OK, a check or a credit card, however you want to pay it.’ And I said, ‘I have no intention of paying you anything. I’m going in for a procedure.'”

Fuller said he left the room shaking with anger.

“Just nobody at that point should be going through that,” he said.

Deb Waldin, of Edina, was at Fariview Hospital Emergency room with kidney stones and put her pain at a 12 on a scale of one to 10.

“I was just having such pain, it was hard to process what he was saying, but I do recall he was saying I needed to pay him between $700 and $800,” she said.

Franken said he wants more information about an allegation in Swanson’s lawsuit that said North Memorial and Accretive backdated a business agreement for Accretive’s services at the Robbinsdale hospital. Messages to North Memorial weren’t immediately returned.

The Minnesota Department of Commerce is also investigating Accretive under its authority to regulate debt collectors in the state.

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