U.S. Sen. Al Franken introduced legislation Wednesday designed to stop debt collectors from approaching patients in emergency rooms, delivery wards and intensive care units and require health provide to take steps to protect patient medical information.

The Minnesota Democrat introduced the legislation in response to two hearings he convened, including a field session in St. Paul where former patients at Fairview Southdale Hospital testified that the hospital's former debt collector, Accretive Health, pressured them for payments in the emergency room.

The U.S. Treasury Department proposed banning debt collection activities in the emergency departments of non-profit hospitals. Franken aims to expand that ban to cover all hospitals.

"Minnesotans should be able to see their doctor without being harassed for payment when they're in pain in the emergency room and without worrying that their private information will end up in the wrong hands," Franken said in a statement.

The bills would prohibit debt collectors from approaching patients in the emergency room, intensive care unit, or labor or delivery department and would require health providers to encrypt laptops and other portable devices that store patient health information.

A thief stole an unencrypted laptop in July 2011 from an Accretive employee's rental car. The computer contained sensitive information on 23,500 patients of two Minnesota health systems, Fairview and North Memorial Health Care.

Fairview cut ties with Accretive Health after Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson sued the firm for alleged patient privacy violations and aggressive debt-collections practices. North Memorial remains an Accretive client.

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