The Report to Congressional Committees of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO Report”), required under the 21st Century Cures Act, came out about a month earlier than required, but this early bird failed to catch what continues to be a wriggling worm – what can a covered entity charge for these copies?
As discussed in our February 2017 blog post, the Office for Civil Rights issued guidance (“OCR Guidance”) over 2 years ago attempting to clarify that HIPAA charge limits (to a “reasonable, cost-based fee”) apply when an individual (or a third party) requests access to the individual’s medical records. The HIPAA charge limits applicable to access requests apply even if state law permits higher charges for the copies. The OCR Guidance includes a table illustrating the differences between a HIPAA authorization and an access request and notes that the “primary difference” between the two being that one (the authorization) is a “permitted disclosure” and one (the access request) is a “required disclosure”.
In another of our posts on this topic (back in May of 2016), we highlighted the difficulty faced by a covered entity in knowing what amounts may be charged for medical records copies, particularly when a third party requests the copy. We noted HHS’s suggestion that the covered entity ask the individual “whether the request was a direction of the individual or a request from the third party.” The former would be an access request subject to charge limits and other HIPAA requirements, whereas the latter would be “merely a HIPAA authorization”. A wriggling worm, indeed.
The GAO Report attempts to pin down the worm. It describes three types of medical record requests:
* a patient request, whereby the patient or former patient requests access to or a copy of medical records
* a patient-directed request, whereby the patient or former patient requests that a copy of the patient’s medical records be sent directly to another person or entity (“For example, a patient might request that her medical records be forwarded to another provider because the patient is moving or wants a second opinion.”)
* a third-party request, whereby a third party, such as an attorney, obtains permission from the patient (via a HIPAA authorization) to access the patient’s medical records
An explanatory footnote suggests that the first two types of requests are access requests under HIPAA (meaning that charge limits and other HIPAA requirements apply), while the third type of request is an authorization under HIPAA (meaning that the provider is not required to disclose the records and the access request charge limits do not apply). Later, the GAO Report states: “In contrast with patient and patient-directed requests, the fees for third-party requests are not limited by HIPAA’s reasonable, cost-based standard for access requests and are instead governed by state laws.”
Unfortunately, this is where the worm has a chance to get away. First, the example used to describe a patient-directed request implies that a patient access request is required for the provider to forward the medical records to another treating provider. In fact, HIPAA permits disclosure of medical records for treatment purposes without the need for a HIPAA authorization or access request (see OCR Guidance language following table), and, thus, charging even a “reasonable, cost-based” fee for such disclosures may be frowned upon by OCR. Second, these three examples overlook the possibility that a patient-directed request may come from a third party. An access request must be in writing, be signed by the individual, and clearly identify where the medical record copies should be sent, but HIPAA does not prohibit the individual from directing that a third party (such as the individual’s attorney) transmit the individual’s access request to the provider.
Moreover, a recent court decision further muddies this issue. In a February 2018 U.S. district court decision from Alabama, Bocage v. Acton Corp., the court rejected plaintiffs’ claim that they were overcharged search and retrieval fees in violation of HIPAA. The plaintiffs’ attorneys had requested medical records by way of HIPAA authorizations, so the court determined that the fee limitations associated with individual access requests did not apply. Unfortunately, while the decision quotes the OCR Guidance (“The [access request] fee limits apply … regardless of whether the access request was submitted to the covered entity by the individual directly or forwarded to the covered entity by a third party on behalf and at the direction of the individual (such as by an app being used by the individual)… ”), the decision incorrectly suggests that the individual’s attorney cannot be the third party making an access request on behalf of and at the direction of the individual.
The short-term fix for patients hoping to avoid high fees when requesting medical records? Make sure the request is not identified as a HIPAA authorization and, if you are requesting the records in connection with litigation, consider sending it yourself rather than directing your attorney to send it.