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Making Hepatitis History Part 3: Bankruptcy court holds dirty secrets little and large

Making Hepatitis History Part 3: Bankruptcy court holds dirty secrets little and large

Picture of William Heisel

You might be alarmed at what you find in the bankruptcy records for a medical company or a physician. Here are a few things that have alarmed me.

  • Patient records, with birth dates and social security numbers.
  • Charts showing detailed histories of visits, procedures and lab workups over decades.
  • Pathology lab reports.

Why would you find all these things mixed in with more mundane financial records showing the sums various people are owed?

Because people in bankruptcy are people in crisis, and they do irrational things, like stuff everything that they can find in their office into a box marked "file with bankruptcy court." And because people who are petitioning the court to get their money back demand proof of the money trail. Sometimes, they provide their own proof.

If you are fortunate enough to report near a bankruptcy court, you can see all of these things for yourself. If not, you can use the federal courts' PACER system, which is a great way to get access to millions of records in courts throughout the country.

Anyone first trying to use PACER should be warned that you might be daunted by the mountains of financial statements and other data inside. But don't be dissuaded. These records can produce great stories well beyond the scope of the bankruptcy.  

For a health reporting tip sheet, I spoke with Bob LaMendola at The Sun-Sentinel about his work with bankruptcy records. In July 2008, LaMendola used bankruptcy files to write a well documented piece about uninsured doctors.

"To be honest, I never left the building to check the bankruptcy records. I used PACER solely," LaMendola told me. He was able to download the actual filings and find out which debts remained unpaid.

"I tried getting fancy by searching the PACER system trying to identify bankrupt doctors, but that went nowhere," LaMendola said. "That would be a nice feature, to be able to search by profession or type of business. In the end, I had to just do it the old way and ask experts and lawyers."

Other ideas:

  • Always look first for Schedule B4, a list of the people who are owed the biggest amounts of money. These people are motivated to talk. They're mad, for one, and they think if they publicly humiliate the debtor they are more likely to have their debts resolved quickly. Then you can look at other lists of creditors, to be found in Schedule B6D, Schedule B6E and Schedule B6F. Sometimes people who are owed less and know that they are probably the last in line to be paid are even more willing to go on the record or to share other documents. The federal site has created a nice one-stop-shop to help you figure out where the licensing information for your target business might be.
  • Check the company's state business records to make sure you are looking under the right name in the bankruptcy court. And if the company is national and located elsewhere, you will have to check the relevant courts.
  • When a new group of investors buys a local hospital or takes over a large physicians' group, check the bankruptcy files for the main players' names. Often the same people who sent one entity down the tubes are involved in a new venture. Always check aliases and alternate spellings.
  • Because entire medical histories are often filed, including patient names, you will be inclined to call these patients up immediately and start asking them detailed questions about their problems. Be careful not to trample on their very legitimate privacy concerns and their emotions. You want them to provide more information, not call their attorney to have the files placed under seal.
  • To avoid suffering information overload, you need to develop some good sources inside the target organization. They can help you navigate these records.

You have to register and pay just to look at the records on PACER. A small price to pay for a great story.

Related posts:

Making Hepatitis History Part 1: Michael Jackson's deadly drug strikes again

Making Hepatitis History Part 2: Sterilization logs can help uncover medical negligence

Making Hepatitis History Part 4: Time stamps can separate medical fact from fiction

Making Hepatitis History Part 5: Purchasing records reveal dangerous penny pinching


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