In the early weeks after Las Vegas police seized thousands of records from medical offices linked to the hepatitis outbreak, the job of finding and copying patient files often fell to detectives.
They were trained to hunt down criminals and instead found themselves sifting through stacks of file boxes in a warehouse, hunting for a handful of records among 130,000.
The process was time-consuming for police and frustratingly slow for hundreds of patients of the closed Gastroenterology Center of Nevada and its affiliated clinics.
Four months later, police say they have reached a milestone.
The company contracted by the Metropolitan Police Department, ChartOne, has alphabetized all the records and is expected this week to unveil a phone line for patients to call for updates and answers, said Capt. Al Salinas, who heads the detective bureau overseeing the outbreak-related criminal investigation.
"We went from a horse-driven wagon to an eight-cylinder car," he said.
Welcoming the news was Pat Ducharme, whose husband, Lawrence Ducharme, was a patient at the Desert Shadow Endoscopy Center. Still not knowing whether Lawrence had been infected (he has since tested negative), the Henderson couple filled out a records request form the first day they were available.
They still don't have a response, said Pat Ducharme, who also complained about the lack of communication between government agencies and concerned patients.
"At least we can have some contact and keep bugging them until we get" the records, she said of the phone line. "As it stands now, there's no one we can talk to."
In Feburary, health investigators linked six hepatitis C cases to the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada. Officials later shut down it and affiliated clinics, and law enforcement officers seized medical records.
Salinas knows a lot of patients are frustrated, but police did the best they could considering they had no experience handling medical records, he said.
"We never anticipated anything like this," Salinas said.
Part of the problem was the volume of records. Investigators seized an estimated 100,000 records from six medical offices but later discovered closer to 130,000 files. The records were poorly kept and in disarray, making organizing them a challenge.
The Police Department hired ChartOne, a medical records company, in late April to take over. In the past two months, ChartOne staffers have organized the files while prioritizing the roughly 1,000 records requests related to emergency medical care, Salinas said.
The rest of the 2,200 requests were put on hold but will now be addressed, with records available for pickup at police substations. New requests should take about a week, he said.
Pat Ducharme won't hold her breath.
"We're heard nothing, so I don't have a lot of confidence in this thing," she said.
Lawyer Robert Eglet is familiar with such frustration. He hears it from some of the thousands of clinic patients he now represents in civil lawsuits.
"Obviously it's been frustrating to my clients," he said. "But I can't place blame on anybody. I think they were doing the best they could."
Contact reporter Brian Haynes at email@example.com or 702-383-0281.