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CONSUMER ALERT

Can hospitals charge patients for copies of records?

Q. I needed to get medical records to pass from one hospital to another following an emergency room visit. I was told that the charge would be about $21 for the first page and about 75 cents for each subsequent page. At the time, I just paid to get them. These charges seem exorbitant. Are hospitals required to provide these records to patients without charge?

SHELLIM SAMSON, STOW

A. While that might seem outrageous, it is legal. A state law that has been on the books for quite a while capped the price that hospitals could charge for copies at $15 for the first page and 50 cents a page thereafter. But that was the price limit when the law was passed.

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“According to the statute, a reasonable fee under this section may be adjusted to reflect the consumer price index for medical care services,” said Anne Roach, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health. “A hospital or clinic may also charge an additional fee to cover the cost of postage, other priority mailing, and preparation of an explanation or summary of the hospital or clinic medical record if so requested.”

So, while $21 for the first page plus another 75 cents a page after that seems unreasonable to most consumers, it is perfectly legal when you factor in inflation — a figure the department updates annually. The general explanation for why you face that initial charge is the effort involved in gathering the information and making copies on request. Similarly, the per-page cost includes not just the cost of using the copier, but also staff time.

Some hospitals, however, won’t charge for sharing medical records with other medical professionals. Individuals picking up their own records, however, are usually assessed the maximum fee allowed by law.

If you end up getting hit with charges beyond that, then there’s cause for action. Roach said that anyone who is assessed an unreasonable charge can file a complaint with the Department of Public Health. Doctors are subject to the same limits. Complaints about overcharges for records by your physician should be lodged with the Board of Registration in Medicine.

Mitch Lipka has been helping consumers out of jams for the past two decades. He lives in Worcester and also writes the Consumer Alert blog on Boston.com. Mitch can be reached at ConsumerNews@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchlipka.
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