A doctor’s claim that three men took President Donald Trump’s medical records without a form authorizing their release in what he said felt like a “raid” has raised questions about whether this kind of action is legal.
Here are some questions and answers about what happened and the laws surrounding medical records and patients’ rights to obtain them.
Twelve days after Trump’s inauguration, The New York Times published an interview with Dr. Harold Bornstein in which the president’s former personal doctor revealed he had prescribed Trump three medications, including one to promote hair growth.
In an interview this week with NBC News, Bornstein said that two days after that interview three men, including Keith Schiller, the president’s longtime bodyguard, showed up at the doctor’s office to collect the president’s medical records, leaving Bornstein feeling “raped, frightened and sad.” He said it felt like a raid.
In Bornstein’s account, he wasn’t given a form authorizing him to release Trump’s records. He said the men, who included Alan Garten, the chief legal officer for the Trump Organization, took the originals and copies of Trump’s charts and lab reports, including records filed under fake names the office used. Doctors who treat celebrities often use pseudonyms to further protect celebrities’ privacy.
However, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders disputed the doctor’s characterization of the visit. Sanders said Tuesday the White House medical unit gave Bornstein a letter requesting the records. Sanders described taking possession of the records as “standard operating procedure for a new president.”
When reached by phone Wednesday, Bornstein declined to comment, other than telling an Associated Press reporter to instead report on how “your toilet bowl works.” Bornstein then hung up.
WHO OWNS A MEDICAL RECORD?
Patients have a right to a copy of their medical records but the original physical record belongs to the doctor, said Dr. Matthew Wynia, director of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado.
“If a patient wants a copy, they can have a copy, but they don’t get the original. Patients can also ask for their records to be transferred to a new doctor, but that also involves making copies (i.e., transferring the information), not literally packaging up the originals and sending them off,” Wynia said in an email.
Most states require doctors to keep and maintain records, Wynia said. Federal patient privacy law bars doctors from relinquishing records without a signed release from the patient or an authorized representative.
“Law enforcement can get copies of medical records, under some specific circumstances, but it doesn’t seem like the people gathering these records were acting as law enforcement officers,” Wynia said.
WHAT RIGHTS DO PATIENTS’ HAVE?
A federal law called the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act protects the privacy of health information and gives patients the right to see and get copies of their health records.
Doctors and hospitals are required to provide a paper or electronic copy of records upon a patient’s request. Many doctors ask patients to fill out a so-called HIPAA form before they release records.
Doctors can charge a reasonable fee for releasing records, but they aren’t allowed to withhold them for unpaid medical bills. Patients can share their own health records with anyone they want.
Almost half of Americans in 2017 who were offered access to an online medical record did not access their record. Many didn’t see a need to do so, according to a federal report .
Improving patient access to online medical records is the goal of a new federal initiative, including an online guide to getting and using health records published just last month.
WHAT SHOULD BORNSTEIN HAVE DONE?
If Bornstein believed the medical records were stolen, he could have filed a police report, said Dennis Melamed, who publishes a newsletter on health data privacy and security.
But Melamed also questioned Bornstein’s judgment in talking about the hair-growth drug and other details of Trump’s health.
“He apparently does not take HIPAA seriously,” Melamed said. “And that is particularly odd as health care organizations typically take extra steps to protect the medical privacy of celebrities.”
AP writer Jonathan Lemire in New York contributed to this report.
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