The Obama administration is knocking down the obstacles that Americans face when requesting their own medical records, which will be a big boost in prosecuting medical malpractice cases.

The federal government told doctors and hospitals that in most cases they must provide copies of these records within 30 days of receiving a request. Patients have been able to obtain copies of their records for a long time, but millions of people have complained to federal officials that they were thwarted in trying to exercise that right.

doctor-with-clipboardIn the new guidelines, which were announced recently, patients will not be required to state a reason for requesting their records, and doctors and hospitals cannot deny access out of concern that patients might be upset by the information.

“Based on recent studies and our own enforcement experience, far too often individuals face obstacles to accessing their health information,” said Jocelyn Samuels, the director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, which enforces federal health privacy standards, in The New York Times. “This must change.”

According to the Times, under the new guidelines, a health care provider cannot require patients to pick up their records in person if they ask that the records be sent by mail or email. A health care provider cannot deny a request for access to health information because a patient has failed to pay medical bills. A doctor or a hospital may charge a fee to cover the cost of copying, but cannot charge for the cost of searching for data and retrieving it.

The rules were issued under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. Doctors and hospitals are supposed to provide consumers with access to personal health information within 30 days and, in some cases, can extend the deadline by 30 days. But most requests should be fulfilled in fewer than 30 days, the government said.

Unfortunately, I see this issue firsthand far too often. Many times, people attempt to get their medical records before calling a lawyer. Although this should be a good way to see what the records say quickly, they are often faced with delays of weeks — or even months — before their requests are honored.

Hopefully, these new guidelines will help, though time will only tell whether they can begin to remedy what appears to be a deep and systemic problem.


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A summary of important changes:

Some of the ways in which the new guidance should make it easier for patients include:

  • Doctors and hospitals are not allowed to ask you why you want your records. If you happen to volunteer your reason for requesting your records, they cannot deny you access to your records based on your reason for wanting them.
  • Your doctor or hospital cannot require you to go to the office of facility in person if you request that they mail your records to you.
  • Nor can they require you to use a web portal to request access to your records, because there are still people who do not have internet access.
  • They must provide your records within 30 days. That’s calendar days, not business days. Under certain circumstances, that time limit can be extended by up to 30 days, but you must be notified of the extension within the first 30-day time period.
  • You can be charged a fee for the cost of making paper or electronic copies and postage, but not fees for searching for your records, storage, or retrieval. This applies even if your state laws allow the extra charges.


Thanks for reading,

Christina Sonsire