Internet

Site exposes doctors in debt

The federal government posts a Web site listing doctors who have defaulted on their student loans.

In the latest attempt to use the threat of public humiliation on the Net as a crime deterrent, the federal Health and Human Services Department has posted a site busting doctors who have defaulted on their student loans.

According to the site, in terms of students defaulting on their education debts, California has the most offenders by state; chiropractors have the most by medical discipline; and Life University leads by way of schools. The agency set up the site in an effort to find the doctors who have defaulted on their Health Education Assistance Loans (HEAL).

The site underscores the credibility of the Net as a means of finding people, some of whom may not want to be found. The Net has been used before as a means of bringing public humiliation, as evidenced by a Minnesota police department's decision to begin posting the names of those arrested for prostitution offenses last October.

Despite the fact that the information posted about the doctors doesn't publicize any criminal activities, it will probably cause quite a bit of embarrassment for those listed, especially if any of the information is erroneous. "We wanted to make a maximum distribution of the names, and the Web site provides us the ability to update the list when necessary," said Michael Heningburg, director of the division of student assistance for HEAL.

While some may question the government's right to post the information, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union said the rights group has no issue with the dissemination of the information online, not only because the names are already public information but also because listing the debtors' names is not likely to put the doctors at risk.

"We do not anticipate that this might create a vigilante situation," said Emily Whitfield, spokesperson for the ACLU. "This is not like posting the names of sex offenders online. People have other concerns about their doctors, like malpractice."

According to Heninburg, after a loan becomes delinquent, the government pays the lender the principal and interest due on the loan, and takes over the collection process, which also includes publishing the names of the defaulters in the Federal Register, referral to the Justice Department for enforced collection, wage garnishment, seizure of bank accounts, and withholding of tax refunds.

The 1,402 health care professionals listed on the site owe the government a total of more than $107 million. Most defaulters come from California, Florida, Georgia, and New York, and the majority owe between $10,000 and $20,000. The chiropractic discipline has 768 practitioners who account for more than $52 million in outstanding loans, followed by dentists, who owe $23.64 million.

Veterinarians are apparently the safest bet for a loan officer. Only two vets made the list, owing a paltry $36,357 between the two of them. The single highest debtor is an allopathic practitioner from Chicago who attended the Medical College of Wisconsin. He owes the government approximately $304,093.

The health care workers who made the list also are being disqualified for participation in Medicaid and Medicare programs because they have allegedly ignored all collection efforts. Schools whose students have a delinquency rate of more than 10 percent are disqualified from further participation in the HEAL program.

Heninburg says that since the Web site went live on January 20, access to the site has been slowed because of the overwhelming demand. "We expect wide interest in this issue," he said.