When providers, health plans, business associates, and even patients and plan participants think of the HIPAA privacy and security rules (‘HIPAA Rules”), they seem to be more focused on the privacy and security aspects of the HIPAA Rules. That is, for example, safeguarding an individual’s protected health information (PHI) to avoid data breaches or avoiding improper disclosures to persons without authority for receiving same. An equally important aspect of the HIPAA Rules, however, is ensuring patient access to health records, as shown by recent enforcement activity announced yesterday by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Last year, OCR commenced its Right of Access Initiative, an enforcement priority in 2019 to support individuals’ right to timely access to their health records at a reasonable cost. At least one study found providers are struggling to fully comply with the right to access requirement under HIPAA, rights which also exist under state law. A study by medRxiv reported in HIPAAJournal highlights this issue. During the study, 51 providers were sent medical record access requests and the results showed:
More than half (51%) of the providers assessed were either not fully compliant with the HIPAA right of access or it too[k] several attempts and referrals to supervisors before requests were satisfied in a fully compliant manner…
The researchers also conducted a telephone survey on 3,003 healthcare providers and asked about policies and procedures for releasing patient medical records. The researchers suggest as many as 56% of healthcare providers may not be fully compliant with the HIPAA right of access. 24% did not appear to be fully aware of the fee limitations for providing copies of medical records.
What is the right to access under HIPAA?
The HIPAA Privacy Rule generally requires HIPAA covered entities (health plans and most health care providers) to provide individuals, upon request, with access to PHI about them in one or more “designated record sets” maintained by or for the covered entity. This includes the right to inspect or obtain a copy, or both, as well as to direct the covered entity to transmit a copy to a designated person or entity of the individual’s choice. This right applies for as long as the covered entity (or its business associate) maintains the information, regardless of the date the information was created, and whether the information is maintained in paper or electronic systems onsite, remotely, or is archived.
When implementing this rule, covered entities and their business associates have several issues to consider, such as:
- What information is subject to the right and what information is not, such as psychotherapy notes.
- Confirming the authority of “personal representative” to act on behalf of an individual.
- Procedures for receiving and responding to requests – such as written request requirements, verifying the authority of requesting parties, timeliness of response, whether and on what grounds requests may be denied, and fees that can be charged for approved requests.
To assist covered entities (and business associates), the OCR provides a summary of right of access issues, as well as a set of frequently asked questions.
Enforcement of the Right to Access.
The five enforcement actions announced yesterday are not the first enforcement actions taken by OCR. In September 2019, the OCR settled a compliant with a provider for $85,000 after it alleged the provider failed to respond to a patient’s request for access. In December 2019, the OCR settled a second complaint, again for $85,000, to address similar allegations, failure to respond timely, as well as failing to forward the medical records in the requested format and charging more than the reasonably cost-based fees allowed under HIPAA.
The five more recent cases involve very similar allegations against mostly small health care providers, at least in one case a not-for-profit, namely, the failure to provide patients with the right to access their protected health information under the HIPAA Rules. The total amount of the settlements with these fine entities is $136,500.
Patients can’t take charge of their health care decisions, without timely access to their own medical information,” said OCR Director Roger Severino. “Today’s announcement is about empowering patients and holding health care providers accountable for failing to take their HIPAA obligations seriously enough,” Severino added.
Providers receive all kinds of requests for medical and other records in the course of running their businesses. Reviewing and responding to these requests no doubt creates administrative burdens. However, buying forms online might not get the practice all it needs, and could put the practice at additional risk if those are followed without considering state law or are not implemented properly.
Putting in place relatively simple policies, carefully developing template forms, assigning responsibility, training, and documenting responses can go a long way toward substantially minimizing the risk an OCR enforcement action and its severity. Providers also should be considering sanctions under state law that also might flow from failing to provide patients access to their records. It is worth nothing that in some cases state law may be more stringent than HIPAA concerning the right to access, requiring modifications to the processes practices follow for providing access.