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Federal Law Entitles You to Your Medical Records – so Why Do Hospitals Make It So Difficult?

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These days our privacy seems more and more threatened. Every few weeks, it seems, there’s a new headline about some massive security breach in which hundreds of thousands if not millions of names, addresses, passwords and credit card numbers have been leaked to identity thieves trying to make a pile of money by stealing yours. So that makes it doubly ironic when gaining access to the one set of personal records the law entitles you to see – your own medical records – is often a confusing, expensive, time-consuming process.

You Have a Right to Your Medical Records, says Uncle Sam

It’s not supposed to be that way, according to this recent article by columnist Judith Graham writing on the website of Kaiser Health News. “Medical records can be hard for patients to get, even in this digital information age,” Graham writes. “But they shouldn’t be: Federal law guarantees that people have a right to see and obtain a copy of their medical records.”

The Kaiser article, published late last month, is important reading for seniors and their families, because it shows how even the best medical centers in the U.S. are providing inconsistent and confusing information to patients and their families seeking to exercise their rights to obtain their own medical records. Graham’s article spotlights a study by Yale University of 83 leading hospitals around the country. In the study, researchers collected the forms these hospitals use to process patient records requests. Then they called the same hospitals on the phone, “posing] as a relative asking questions on behalf of a grandmother who needed her records before seeking a second opinion. Family members make such requests on behalf of older relatives every day,” the article states.

Medical Records Info Inconsistent, Sometimes Illegal

What happened?  Compared with their own written forms, the information given out over the phone was incomplete and inconsistent. “In many cases,” says the article, “the information on forms didn’t match what researchers were told on the phone. Sometimes their answers violated federal or state legal requirements.”  For example, in spite of federal law requiring them to do so, more than 40 percent of hospital forms did not disclose the costs of obtaining records. Once researchers got these hospitals on the phone, almost all disclosed their costs, but about 60 percent quoted a cost that exceeded federal guidelines. Only about half of the hospital information forms informed patients that they were entitled to all their records, a notice which the law requires. As study author, Yale professor Dr. Harlan Krumholz, told Kaiser Health News, “The unfortunate truth is that the system doesn’t give patients reliable or consistent responses. And some people who work in medical records departments appear to be ignorant of the law and the rights that patients have.”

The applicable law is usually called HIPAA – the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, passed in 1996.  Among its many provisions, HIPAA gives hospitals, medical clinics, physician practices, pharmacies and health insurers 30 days to make a patient’s medical records available at a reasonable cost and in the format that patients request. But HIPAA, while more than two decades old, is still misunderstood and misapplied. In one case reported by Kaiser Health News, a geriatric care manager in New Jersey asked to see records for an 80-year-old client. Even though the care manager was a designated representative and should have had access to the records, a hospital nurse refused to release them. Only the intervention of a senior physician finally got the records released. Such obstructionism is all too common, research suggests.

Know Your Rights

The Kaiser article asks the question on the minds of many of us. “What can people do if they encounter problems like those documented by the Yale researchers? If your hospital or doctor’s office declines to make your records available, print out materials about your rights and use them to advocate on your behalf.”  Graham says you should be able to say with confidence that you are entitled to a copy of your records, and show them the legal explanation. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers this handy 2-page explanation letting you know how and when you can share health care information with a friend or family member. In the Kaiser article we also found a link to another government website called the Guide to Getting and Using Your Health Records.  Finally here’s another link to a handy summary of your rights from a national non-profit called GetMyHealthData.

Medical care in retirement is complicated enough without hospitals and other health care providers making it even harder. But as with so many things, knowledge is power – and that means knowing your rights and taking charge of your health care. The same is true of retirement planning: it can be confusing, but if you plan ahead and take charge of the process you can turn a daunting task into an exciting and rewarding process. Of course, you need the right guide by your side, and that’s where AgingOptions comes in. We have helped thousands of people just like you prepare for a secure and fruitful retirement through a strategy we call LifePlanning, a comprehensive approach to retirement in which all the essential elements fit together: your finances, your health care, your legal protection, your housing choices, and your family communication plan. A LifePlan is the best way we know for you to protect your assets in retirement, avoid becoming a burden to your loved ones, and escape the trap of unplanned institutional care.

We invite to you come and learn more about this unique approach to retirement planning by joining Rajiv Nagaich at one of our upcoming LifePlanning Seminars. These information-packed events are absolutely free – no pressure or obligation of any kind – and Rajiv’s fact-filled presentation will really open your eyes. No doubt there’s a LifePlanning Seminar coming soon to a location that’s convenient for you! Simply visit our Live Events page and register for the date, time and location of your choice. It will be a pleasure to welcome you. Meanwhile, age on!

(originally reported at

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