The federal Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (the HI-TECH Act) was passed in 2009 to promote the adoption of electronic medical records. The Act encompasses many subjects, but some of its provisions can be used to substantially reduce the cost of obtaining electronic copies of medical records. The Act applies to any medical provider who maintains electronic medical records, and requires a digital copy of the records be supplied at cost upon request.[i] In practice, this results in a significant reduction in the cost of purchasing medical records.
Under the HI-TECH Act, an individual patient may request the digital record. In addition, any other person who has authority to act for the patient “under applicable law” can make the request.[ii] Although this language suggests the patient’s attorney should be able to send the request for electronic records as the patient’s “authorized representative,” that would be wrong. The agency which enforces the HI-TECH Act, the federal Office of Civil Rights (OCR), has consistently taken the position that the Act will only apply if the request for medical records is in a writing signed by the individual and is authored by the individual; i.e. – the patient (or authorized estate representative). The OCR takes the position that third-party requests for medical records (i.e. – attorney requests) are governed by state laws, which vary from state to state.[iii] In New York, the state law is Public Health Law Section 18, which provides that the fees shall be cost-based but in no event in excess of $0.75 a page.
To invoke the Act, therefore, the medical record request must be in a writing signed by the patient. The attorney can prepare the medical record request for the client’s signature. The letter from the patient requesting the medical records can be forwarded to the health care provider from the attorney’s office, again, as long as the request is in a writing signed by the patient. The regulations provide that the client (the individual) can require that the medical records be mailed to a third party designated by the patient (i.e. – the attorney’s office).[iv] It is also important to note that a HIPAA authorization is not required as part of a HI-TECH Act request for electronic records.[v]
Upon receipt of a request for electronic records under the HI-TECH Act, the health care provider must act on the patient’s request no later than 30 days from receipt.[vi] Recall, that under the New York’s Public Health Law Section 18, the time limit to produce the records is a “reasonable” time. If the provider cannot comply within 30 days, it/he/she can extend the time by a one- time extension of an additional 30 days, but must provide a written explanation for the delay.[vii] Although a medical provider may insist on payment of a copying fee, the records must be sent within the allotted time frame, regardless of whether payment has been made in full.[viii]
While there is no private right of action under the HI-TECH Act, the OCR can investigate complaints and levy fines for violations. Generally speaking, no penalties will be imposed if the failure to comply is corrected within 30 days after the medical provider knew that the failure to comply occurred. The Office of Civil Rights may provide “technical assistance” to the provider during this 30-day period to resolve the dispute without penalty.[ix] Translated roughly, that means that the OCR can contact the provider and work out a resolution. If your client’s request for medical records is made consistent with the parameters discussed above, and you nonetheless receive a bill from the hospital or the copying company for $0.75 a page, your recourse is to make a complaint to the Office of Civil Rights. The process is relatively painless and can be done online in a few minutes time at the OCR website.[x] OCR normally will only accept complaints that are filed within 180 days of when you knew, or should have known, that the alleged violation of the statute occurred.
The HI-TECH Act, when invoked correctly, should significantly reduce the cost of obtaining your client’s medical records. Remember, however, the key to triggering the statute is to have your client demand an electronic copy of the record in a writing signed by the client.