HIPAA: How I Possess Access Already

After a visit to the doctor, I was told I could not see my medical records because I had not yet paid for my appointment. I felt uneasy being denied access to information about my body and health, but I decided to brush it off and follow the orders of my doctor. Healthcare providers exist to make sure I live a longer and healthier life, so they should always work in my best interest, right? I was wrong. Back then, I was unaware of my rights under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996. Not knowing what I was entitled to, I was taken advantage of.

What even is HIPAA? HIPAA was enacted to provide health insurance coverage for those who change or lose their jobs and to secure the privacy of health records. HIPAA’s passing was especially important because of the shift from paper to digital records of people’s medical history. Just from reading the tabloids, you can see how easy it is to hack into a personal smartphone or computer and steal people’s photos. Just imagine how urgent it was to implement a system to keep individuals’ digital medical records under lock and key. Not only would it be embarrassing to have your every conversation with the doctor floating around on the Internet, but also potentially dangerous.

While I knew that HIPAA was designed to protect some of the most intimate details of my life, it didn’t make sense that my doctor was protecting my records from me. So I dug a little deeper and learned that HIPAA requires health insurers and providers to comply with any citizen’s right to see their medical records and control who else has access to those records.

I also learned that once you submit a request for medical records, the hospital is required to respond within 30 days. This applies even when you have not yet paid your hospital bills. Healthcare providers are only allowed to charge a fee only for the labor for copying the medical record, the supplies for creating the paper or digital copy, and postage for mailing health records.

There exist only a few kinds of records providers can withhold, including psychotherapy notes and information that could reasonably endanger your or someone else’s safety. If your provider denies your request for access to certain records, you can always ask another provider to review your situation. He or she will determine if you can access your health information.

Through my research, I learned a lot about my rights to access my own medical records. The most frustrating of my findings is that not all individuals and organizations are considered to be “HIPAA-covered entities.” According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services website, HIPAA-covered entities can be categorized as health plans, clearinghouses, and healthcare providers.

Other institutions, such as elementary schools and the American Red Cross, are not required to comply with HIPAA. So make sure to check with your healthcare provider if they are a HIPAA-covered entity. That way you know you will always have access to your medical records. If you believe your HIPAA rights are not being protected, you can file a complaint with your provider or with the Department of Health and Human Services.


What ShopRite Taught Me About Milk

Ever since I found out drinking regular milk gives me the most painful stomach aches, I have always used milk substitutes in my everyday life. In coffee shops, I ask for soy milk in my coffee. Whenever I find myself in an ice cream shop, I make sure to look for non-dairy options. Before I bake anything, I make sure I have enough almond milk in the fridge. Once I made the mistake of mixing my almond milk with a little bit of regular milk to make the right amount of pancakes, and I couldn’t stand up straight for the rest of the day because of the pain.

So, here I am: a twenty-one year old, lactose-intolerant college student, living in the center of Philadelphia. The problem with this is that I am living in the second city in the United States to institute a sugar tax on beverages, including milk substitutes.

Yes. The city of Philadelphia is raising the prices of certain almond, cashew, soy milks for the same reason it is taxing people for the sugar in soda. As someone with a food intolerance, I find it unfair to raise the prices of products that help people avoid pain and a trip to the hospital. And I certainly didn’t understand why the price labels for certain “original” flavored milk-substitutes in grocery stores include additional tax when the Philadelphia Beverage Tax website explicitly states, “Unsweetened nut and plant milks are not taxable.”

It took a lot of trips to the closest grocery store, which for me is ShopRite, to figure out the nuances of this recently established tax. It quickly became clear that the flavor titles, such as “original” and “vanilla,” mean very different things across various brands. For example, Pacific’s Vanilla Almond Milk is unsweetened, and therefore, is exempt from the beverage tax, but the Almond Breeze’s Vanilla Almond Milk includes a $0.48 tax in its price.

philly beverage tax, soda tax, allergies, lactose intolerance


A more confusing example of the labeling contradiction on milk-substitutes cartons is the use of the term, “original.” Within the Wholesome Pantry brand, the Original Soymilk is not affected by the tax, whereas the Original Almondmilk is charged an additional $0.96. The only consistent aspect of this labeling fiasco is that it is entirely inconsistent. Wholesome Pantry, Silk, Almond Breeze, and WestSoy all have unsweetened products that are exempt from the beverage tax, however some other non-dairy products they offer are taxed.

The Philadelphia Beverage Tax website explains which drinks are subjected to the tax. It says:

Sweetened nut and plant milks are taxable unless the USDA has deemed them nutritionally equivalent to dairy milk and that nut or plant milk is 50% or more of the finished beverage. Unsweetened nut and plant milks are not taxable.

The website, however, fails to mention that the names of flavors is not indicative of whether or not the product is pre-sweetened. Unlike the categories of dairy milk (skim, 2%, whole) which are clearly defined, the categories of nut and plant milks are not subject to standardized definitions. Unless you are familiar with the names of sweeteners, there is no quick method of determining if the products you are buying are correctly taxed.

If you suspect any mistakes in the pricing of your beverages, you can call to notify your local and state Director of Consumer Protection. (