Washington DC Hospitals Sued For Charging Patients $1,500 For Downloading Electronic Copies Of Their Medical Records

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Two Washington, DC-area hospitals have been named in a class action lawsuit alleging that patients are being charged in excess of $1,500 to access electronic copies of their medical records. The complaint, filed on September 14, names George Washington University Hospital and MedStar Georgetown University Hospital as defendants, and argues that the fees charged to patients attempting to download their medical records violates “the limitations on charges for medical records set forth in HIPAA, the HITECH Act, and related regulations.”

In the complaint, three plaintiffs tell an all too common story of the red tape and corporate bureaucracy they encountered when trying to secure copies of their medical records. The first, Garrett and Christine Gambino, sent a letter to Medstar Georgetown University Hospital to request an electronic copy of their newborn child’s medical record. Within their written request, the defendants explicitly build their case: “Do not send a paper copy of these records…. The HITECH Act and its regulations do not allow you to bill for paper copies when an electronic copy has been requested.” The letter goes on to request a copy of the records on CD, or instructions on how to download a copy of the record. A short time later, plaintiff Lincoln Hunter sent an almost identical letter to MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, again citing HITECH and asking for a CD or instructions on downloading copies. Not long after, plaintiff Alexander Borbely sent a letter to the George Washington University Hospital with the same request. Each letter requested that the medical records be sent to the law firm that is now spearheading this class action lawsuit.

While it’s clear that the firm responsible for sending these letters appears to have been engaged in a fishing expedition, the responses from George Washington University Hospital and MedStar Georgetown University Hospital were representative of larger problems being discussed within health IT communities: Meaningful Use was supposed to make accessing records easier for patients, but medical record departments are denying electronic records requests while charging exorbitant fees for paper records.

In each of these cases, the medical records requests were handled by a third-party vendor called HealthPort contracted to mange records requests for both of the accused hospitals. Initially, the patients were referred to HealthPort’s online portal to access their records, but patients found that the portal was simply “a Web-based medical record request portal” that automated the records request process but did not offer “view, download, and transmit” functionality associated with a traditional MU-certified patient portal. HealthPort also assessed substantial fees during the record request process. The company sent an invoice of $1,168 to the Gambinos for processing their newborn’s medical record request, then sent defendant Lincoln Hunter an invoice for $1,588, and sent George Washington University Hospital patient Alexander Borbely an invoice for $430. Each invoice cited per-page fees associated with paper records requests, and on one invoice, the company explicitly specified that, “We do not put records on CD. Only paper copy.”

While the red tape and undue expenses encountered by these patients may at the surface seem like evidence of an industry slow to adjust to new consumer rights regulations, the reality is that HealthPort has been actively lobbying for higher medical records fees for years. In 2013, the Tampa Bay Times covered a case in which HealthPort lobbyists were fighting against a consumer protection group in Florida in an effort to increase the state’s medical record fee from $0.25 per page to $1 per page, while at the same time pushing to update language within the fee structure to explicitly state that fees apply to both paper and electronic record requests. Two years later, that battle is still being waged in Florida.

Meanwhile, both MedStar Georgetown University Hospital and Georgetown University Hospital have actively participated in the Meaningful Use program, collecting $2.9 million and $3 million in incentive payments respectively.


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