When do the HIPAA Privacy Rule limitations on fees that can be charged for individuals to access copies of their PHI apply to disclosures of the individual’s PHI to a third party?
The fee limits apply when an individual directs a covered entity to send the PHI to the third party. Under the HIPAA Privacy Rule, a covered entity is prohibited from charging an individual who has requested a copy of her PHI more than a reasonable, cost-based fee for the copy that covers onlycertain labor, supply, and postage costs that may apply in fulfilling the request. See 45 CFR 164.524(c)(4). This limitation applies regardless of whether the individual has requested that the copy of PHI be sent to herself, or has directed that the covered entity send the copy directly to a third party designated by the individual (and it doesn’t matter who the third party is). To direct a copy to a third party, the individual’s access request must be in writing, signed by the individual, and clearly identify the designated person or entity and where to send the PHI. See 45 CFR 164.524(c)(3)(ii). Thus, written access requests by individuals to have a copy of their PHI sent to a third party that include these minimal elements are subject to the same fee limitations in the Privacy Rule that apply to requests by individuals to have a copy of their PHI sent to themselves. This is true regardless of whether the access request was submitted to the covered entity by the individual directly or forwarded to the covered entity by a third party on behalf and at the direction of the individual (such as by an app being used by the individual). Further, these same limitations apply when the individual’s personal representative, rather than the individual herself, has made the request to send a copy of the individual’s PHI to a third party.
In contrast, third parties often will directly request PHI from a covered entity and submit a written HIPAA authorization from the individual (or rely on another permission in the Privacy Rule) for that disclosure. Where the third party is initiating a request for PHI on its own behalf, with the individual’s HIPAA authorization (or pursuant to another permissible disclosure provision in the Privacy Rule), the access fee limitations do not apply. However, as described above, where the third party is forwarding - on behalf and at the direction of the individual - the individual’s access request for a covered entity to direct a copy of the individual’s PHI to the third party, the fee limitations apply.
We note that a covered entity (or a business associate) may not circumvent the access fee limitations by treating individual requests for access like other HIPAA disclosures – such as by having an individual fill out a HIPAA authorization when the individual requests access to her PHI (including to direct a copy of the PHI to a third party). As explained elsewhere in the guidance, a HIPAA authorization is not required for individuals to request access to their PHI, including to direct a copy to a third party – and because a HIPAA authorization requests more information than is necessary or that may not be relevant for individuals to exercise their access rights, requiring execution of a HIPAA authorization may create impermissible obstacles to the exercise of this right. Where it is unclear to a covered entity, based on the form of a request sent by a third party, whether the request is an access request initiated by the individual or merely a HIPAA authorization by the individual to disclose PHI to the third party, the entity may clarify with the individual whether the request was a direction from the individual or a request from the third party. OCR is open to engaging with the community on ways that technology could easily convey this information.
Finally, we note that disclosures to a third party made outside of the right of access under other provisions of the Privacy Rule still may be subject to the prohibition against sales of PHI (i.e., the prohibition against receiving remuneration for a disclosure of PHI at 45 CFR 164.502(a)(5)(ii)). Where the prohibition applies, a covered entity may charge only a reasonable, cost-based fee to cover the cost to prepare and transmit the PHI or a fee otherwise expressly permitted by other law or must have received a HIPAA authorization from the individual that states that the disclosure will involve remuneration to the covered entity.