Can You Get a Hard Copy of Your Medical Records? Yes, But It Will Cost You

shelves of paper medical records

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Key Takeaways

  • New regulations require healthcare providers to give electronic access to medical records for free.
  • Providers can still charge for printing at a per-page rate established by HIPAA.
  • Experts say that digital health records are easier for providers to utilize.

There’s little more personal than your health information. While patients are often tasked with navigating their treatment plans, until October 2022, their information was held ransom by their health providers. But a recent change to federal regulations opened the doors for patients to access their medical records digitally—for free.

Medical records are the written paper trail of a patient’s diagnosis, treatment, and prescriptions. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) protects that information from public view, which keeps providers and insurers from sharing sensitive patient information without the patient’s knowledge and consent.

While HIPAA protects patients from data breaches and discrimination, there are occasions when patients need to access their medical records. Until recently, that process has been time-consuming and costly. Now, it’s free, but only for digital medical records. Here’s why getting a hard copy can still be difficult and expensive.

What Do the New Rules Mean?

As of October 6, when the 21st Century CURES Act went into effect, all medical providers must make patient medical records available to patients. While HIPAA mandates that providers must provide documents to patients when requested, it also says that patients may be charged a “reasonable cost” for copying and mailing the records. While that may seem like a small detail, a complete medical history can be thousands of pages long, spanning many providers. The costs add up.

Now, providers must make those records available for free—but only digitally. Hard copies of medical records can still incur charges per page, typically at a rate set by each state. Rates can range from $0.15 to $0.75.

While some of that charge covers the cost of printing materials, it also compensates providers for the time it takes to find and assemble the files. Elizabeth McElhiney, director of compliance and government affairs at ScanSTAT Technologies and secretary of the Association of Health Information Outsourcing Services (AHIOS), told Verywell that as patient loads have grown, many providers have turned to offsite storage for their medical records.

Finding and organizing the information is often outsourced to medical records companies, which charge for the service. Even if a provider keeps their records in-house, there are labor costs to organize and maintain the information. Now that medical records are moving toward digitalization, finding older forms of records can be costly and time-consuming.

“If you have to provide paper records or microfilm or microfiche, it actually does take longer than electronic records to be provided,” McElhiney said. “As providers have moved records offsite to save space, they have to order them to be brought onsite, reviewed to make sure the information is there, and duplicate it.”

A Variety of Systems Makes Information Gathering Complicated

Anthony Puglisi, president and CEO of American Medical Solutions and member of AHIOS, told Verywell that offsite records are just one issue. As clinics change ownership and switch health records systems, there can be friction, making records harder to find and organize.

“There’s always systems that need to have records sent over from one system to another, and that can be incredibly cumbersome,” Puglisi said. “Some major electronic medical record (EMR) systems have a six to eight-month backlog of clinicians trying to get records from one clinic into the new system.”

Puglisi said that some clinicians will opt out of buying the entire patient record, further complicating things when patients need a complete care history. Although digitizing records doesn’t solve every problem, it eliminates the time-consuming task of physically copying each record page, which can sometimes number in the thousands of pages.

Are Paper Records Better?

But the question remains: Is it possible to get a hard copy of your medical record? It is, but the charges that are regulated by HIPAA will still apply. While this can be quite costly if there is a large paper trail, Puglisi and McElhiney agree that digital trumps paper when it comes to how your medical records are used.

“There are actually great benefits to having your records electronically,” Puglisi said. “If you have it on paper, you may take it to a new doctor, who will scan it and most likely shred it. If it’s electronic, they can pull whatever they want off and upload it to their new system easily.”

Puglisi said that patients may prefer paper records out of an assumed idea that providers want them, but in an increasingly electronic world, paper equals costs—for labor, storage, and organization.

Although the new regulations are a boon for patients looking for access to their information, hospital systems and providers are scrambling to meet the requirements. Since the information still has to be found and organized, the benefit of the new standards falls squarely in the patient’s court. While patience may be required, at least a flush bank account is not.

What This Means For You

Your medical records have been moving online for several years, and now you can access them more easily. Not all hospital systems are ready to comply quickly with requests, so you may need patience. Rest assured, your doctor will appreciate electronic access much more than a hard copy of your records.

By Rachel Murphy
Rachel Murphy is a Kansas City, MO, journalist with more than 10 years of experience.