Health

Should medical records be free for low-income patients?

Mae Ryan/KPCC

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Low-income people applying for Medi-Cal or other social services often need their medical records to prove their eligibility, but in many cases they have to pay to get them. A bill in Sacramento would do away with those fees.

Those seeking to receive public benefit programs "don't have ... money for food, let alone ... to pay for a copy of your medical records," said Sen. Connie Leyva (D-Chino).

California law allows medical providers to charge up to 25 cents a page for copies, or 50 cents if the record is on microfilm. A provider can add clerical costs on top of that.

"If you have several pages that you need it can be quite costly," said Leyva. Currently, copies of medical records are free for appeals of Medi-Cal, SSI/SSP, and SSDI decisions, but not the initial application.

Under Leyva’s bill, medical providers would have to shoulder the cost of the copies. "They can afford to absorb these costs," she said. "The poor people who are trying to receive their records cannot."

The legislation would also cover people applying for In-Home Supportive Services, the California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs) program and CalFresh.

The Western Center on Law and Poverty sponsored Leyva's bill because it had heard from legal aid advocates about challenges their clients faced accessing their records, said Linda Nguy, a policy advocate at the Western Center.

Not having one's medical records during the initial application process can lead to an application being denied, she said. "It would be helpful to have their medical records at the initial application so they can really bring forward their best application," said Nguy.

A spokeswoman for California Hospital Association said it had not yet taken a position on the bill. The California Medical Association did not respond to a request for comment.

A number of other states, including Vermont and Texas, already prohibit charging for medical records when applying for public benefit programs. Kentucky, meanwhile, provides a free copy of medical records regardless of the reason.

The Senate Health Committee is scheduled to consider the bill on Wednesday.