Friday, April 19, 2013

Witness Fees -Tugging At Costs

Controversy about a California bill that would change the fees hospitals and other medical providers could charge to comply with records requests is overstated.

Sen. Bill Emmerson, R-Hemet, sponsored Senate Bill 588, which proposes to amend the California Evidence Code to allow in-house record retrieval services for hospitals and other medical providers to charge a $30 search-and-retrieval fee, 50 cents per page for the first 25 pages, 25 cents for each additional page, and a fee of 50 cents per page for documents requiring special processing. The bill would apply only to cases where the applicant or plaintiff has authorized the release of their medical records.

The bill would also delete a statutory provision authorizing all reasonable costs to be charged against the person whose written authorization required the copies, and replace it with a provision requiring the attorney who requested the copies to pay the fees listed in the bill.

SB 588 would require the Director of the Department of Health Care Services to change the fees at least once every three years, unless the Consumer Price Index has not changed, would require in-house copy services to provide electronic copies, and would also subject electronic copies to the bill's fee schedule.

A hearing was held Wednesday in the Senate Health Committee, which approved the bill on an 8-0 vote and forwarded it to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Who has Emmerson's ear?

Michael Hawkins and Kyle Probst of Healthport Technologies, a medical records company that serves more than 10,000 health care providers and one-third of the nation's hospitals, testified in favor of SB 588.

Probst, general counsel and director of government relations for Healthport, told the committees that his company drafted the bill because it affects Evidence Code sections that directly pertain to Healthport's business.

At least Probst is honest about where the bill came from and why it was proposed.

He also makes a very poignant argument, one that will no doubt make its way to the group presently researching a copy service fee schedule - the bill would also increase fees that are more commensurate with the amount of work needed to comply with records requests.

"Currently, if you were to ask for copies under the statute, it is set at 10 cents a page for an attorney request," Probst said, noting that the Evidence Code fee has not changed since 1986. "The national average for an attorney request across the country, in the 50 states, is 93 cents a page for the first page. So, you are looking at an 83-cent difference, just from the average."

Some are saying the bill is a separate fee schedule for copy services. It isn't - rather is an adjustment on the compensation to the record-producing entity, in this case hospitals and other medical providers, to their "witness fees" in compliance with a subpoena duces tecum (a subpoena for records) .

Argument in the WorkCompCentral story about this bill this morning focused on the perception that SB 588 would create a separate fee schedule for copy services thus frustrating the intent of SB 863.

As noted above, this is not an accurate argument because it is not about copy services, but rather witness fees.

Nevertheless the bill does highlight two issues.

First - why are hospitals and other specified medical providers different in the compliance with a subpoena duces tecum than any other record-producing entity? Their costs for the retrieval and production of records is no different than, say, a police department's records or employer's records.

Second - the fact that there are such disparate laws, and fees, concerning the production of evidence highlights what some of the copy services have been arguing all along regarding copy service fee schedules - there's a lot of "back end" work that must be performed, and a lot of hidden costs that must be absorbed, by a record reproduction service in order to get the records to the parties in litigation.

In my opinion, SB 588 does no harm to workers' compensation other than increase the expense of litigation (what else is new...) but does bring the reality of that expense, in civil, administrative or any other form, into focus.

There's always something tugging at the cost component of workers' compensation.

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