PHOENIX – Caitlin Secrist, a 21-year-old college student blocked from lifesaving surgery because she can’t get copies of her medical records, will receive the file after Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and a judge intervened Wednesday.
Secrist can’t eat, can’t work, delayed her college graduation and is in constant pain because of acute pancreatitis. She wears a feeding tube around the clock and depends on handfuls of medications. More than a dozen hospitalizations later, the next pancreatitic attack could kill her.
All conventional treatments have failed. Secrist hopes a drastic surgery to completely remove her pancreas, spleen and appendix could help.
But a top doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital refuses to perform the operation without a complete understanding of Secrist’s health history, including what her organs looked like when she was originally diagnosed, she said. Without the first scans taken in 2017, Secrist can’t move forward.
Secrist is among more than 300 patients who have tried and failed to get their medical records since Florence Hospital at Anthem and Gilbert Hospital went bankrupt and closed last summer, The Arizona Republic reported. Creditors have been bickering since then over who should cover the $92,000 needed to access the repossessed electronic-records system.
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After reading the Republic story, Ducey directed his staff to see whether they could help Secrist obtain her records. Their efforts are underway.
“We’ve spoken with the patient’s family and other outside organizations that could help with this to find any avenue possible to get these records to her,” said Patrick Ptak, a spokesman for the governor.
Pleading her case in court
Secrist and her parents drove an hour and a half from their Florence, Arizona, home to a court hearing on the impasse Wednesday, hoping to speak to the judge.
Secrist had penned a heart-wrenching letter to Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Roger Brodman the day before. Her doctor also wrote the court, saying that Secrist was in “dire need” of the records.
Brodman considered competing proposals to resolve the situation:
- Make patients pay potentially thousands of dollars for their records.
- Send the bill to former hospital executives.
- Force the electronic-records company to shoulder the costs.
- Dig into hospital assets that otherwise would go to the senior creditor, a New York investment firm, which opposed the plan.
“Everybody agrees this is a critical issue,” Brodman said. “The hospital has the duty to produce the records. The inherent problem here is there is no hospital. The hospital has gone kaput.”
Secrist didn’t get to speak during the court proceedings. But as it turned out, the judge didn’t need Secrist’s encouragement.
Brodman ruled quickly that the most efficient, fastest and probably least expensive option was to use remaining hospital assets.
That plan will reactivate the electronic-records system for 90 days, launch a publicity blitz to alert patients and hire employees to collect the records and respond to requests.
Indigo-DLI Holdings, the New York lender that opposed the plan because it would eat into the money it would recoup from the hospitals, may appeal to stop the plan, attorney Kyle Hirsch said in court.
He was the only attorney in the lawsuit that has not expressed sympathy for patients.
“This is a very important issue,” Hirsch told the judge. “If the patients want their records they should pay a reasonable fee. … But imposing the entire expense on Indigo doesn’t seem fair.”
For now, the plan will move forward.
Next steps for patients
If all goes well, Secrist can expect to receive her file in two to three weeks, attorneys said.
She could get the records even faster if Ducey’s office can locate her files through a third-party records vendor the state has a relationship with.
Any patients who need records from Florence and Gilbert hospitals — and have not already requested them — should do so as soon as possible.
The window of opportunity to receive records is expected to be roughly March through May.
‘It’s a good feeling’
Secrist and her parents said the decision was a “big win” for her and hundreds of other patients.
“It’s a good feeling,” Secrist said outside the courthouse. “I can finally get those records and get on my way to getting better.”
An aspiring nurse, Secrist hopes to schedule her surgery soon so she can get back to school and a more normal life.
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Her mother, Suzette Secrist, said she was grateful to the judge.
“He realized there’s a human part to all of this,” she said.
The Republic’s investigation probably helped motivate the parties to secure a solution, Suzette Secrist said.
“The first thing the attorneys asked us this morning was, ‘Have you read the story?'” she said. “We appreciate all the help we’ve gotten. It was way more than I expected.”
Solutions to broader problem
Secrist’s case poses the wider question of why Arizona patients were put at risk at all.
Disputes between health care facilities and software and server companies over billing, access and obligations to patients have cropped up as medical records across the country have been moved online. There are not always clear answers in current federal and state law.
For instance, attorneys for Medhost, the electronic record company used by Florence and Gilbert hospitals, argued that it is not a “health care provider” and thus was not subject to records-retention regulations that apply to hospitals and doctors.
And the Arizona Department of Health Services declined to intervene in the case despite requests from attorneys. It’s not clear why.
The Governor’s Office hopes to review state laws for possible loopholes that contributed to the quagmire, Ptak said.
“We are open to discussions about how to prevent something like this from happening in the future if a hospital were to close,” he said.
Follow Rebekah L. Sanders on Twitter: @RebekahLSanders