Department of Human Services Right-To-Know Law Policy
Effective January 1, 2009
Pursuant to Section 504 of the Right-To-Know Law, 65 P.S. §67.101 et seq. (RTKL), the Department of Human Services (hereinafter referred to as "department" or "DHS") sets forth the following policies, process, and procedures regarding responses by the department to requests made pursuant to the RTKL. The policies set forth in Management Directive 205.36 apply to this policy. The definitions in MD 205.36 also apply to this policy.
The department is comprised of executive offices that include the Office of Administration, Office of Budget, Office of Legislative Affairs, Office of Policy Development, and Office of Press and Communications; and program offices that include the Office of Child Development and Early Learning; Office of Children, Youth and Families; Office of Developmental Programs; Office of Income Maintenance; Office of Long Term Living; Office of Medical Assistance Programs; and Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. In addition to these offices, the department also includes entities administered by the department, such as the Developmental Disabilities Planning Council. RTKL requests encompassing records from the above offices and entities should be directed to the department in accordance with this policy.
In promulgating these policies, the goal of the department is to provide prompt public access to its public records while abiding by exemptions and protections in the RTKL to safeguard certain information, including confidential personal information of department clients and other third persons.
A. The Department Will Only Accept Written Requests — The department's policy is that it will only accept written RTKL requests. The department will not accept oral RTKL requests. Requests must be addressed to the department's Open Records Officer (the "AORO"). The written request to the department under the RTKL must be addressed or delivered as follows:
Department of Human Services
Agency Open Records Office
Room 234 Health and Welfare Building
P.O. Box 2675
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania 17105-2675
|Department of Human Services
Health and Welfare Building, Room 234
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania 17120
Attention: Andrea Bankes
Attention: Andrea Bankes
B. Requests Must Invoke the RTKL and Be Reasonably Specific — All RTKL requests must indicate that the request is being made pursuant to the RTKL and be sufficiently specific to enable the department to ascertain which records are being requested. It is recommended that a request asking for a specific individual document, use the DHS website in crafting a written request, and/or consult with department staff.
C. Requests Must Provide a Name and Address for a Response — The general policy of the department's Open Records Office is that all of its responses will be sent via email. Consequently, the general policy of the department's Open Records Office is that a written request must provide a name, mailing address, and email address where the response may be sent. A written request that lacks an email address will receive a response by U.S. mail unless the written request expressly asks that the department's Open Records Office use some other alternative means of transmitting the response.
D. Requests Must Be From a Legal U.S. Resident — All RTKL requests must be from a legal U.S. resident. If a written RTKL request sets forth a mailing address within the United States, the department's Open Records Office will ordinarily assume that the requester is a legal resident of the United States. However, if any of the following circumstances exist, the presumption is that the requester is not a U.S. resident: The requester's address is the address of a foreign embassy, consulate, or similar entity; the request lists a foreign postal address; the requester's email information indicates that the email was sent from outside the United States; or the requester's facsimile transmission or telephone number indicates that the requester is using a telephone service from outside the United States. In any of the preceding situations, the policy of the department is that the requester must also include proof that he or she is a legal resident of the United States, and the requester's non-compliance with this policy will be considered an admission that the requester is not a legal U.S. resident. The department reserves the right to ask any requester in any other circumstance for proof of U.S. residency.
E. Forms for RTKL Requests — RTKL requests may be made on the form available on the website of the Office of Open Records (OOR) at https://www.openrecords.pa.gov/RTKL/HowToFile.cfm or the form designated by the department and available on its website at DHS Right-To-Know Law Request Form.pdf or at its Open Records Office.
F. Modifications to a Pending RTKL Request
1. All modifications to pending requests must be submitted in writing directly to the department's Open Records Office.
2. Modifications that reduce the scope of a pending RTKL request. If the only effect of a modification is to withdraw some or all of a pending RTKL request, the policy of the Department is to give that modification immediate effect.
3. Other modifications. The policy of the department is that any other modification constitutes a withdrawal of the already-pending request, and a simultaneous substitution of a new request.
G. Business Hours — The department has regular business hours from 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on business days at its Open Records Office in Room 234 of the Health and Welfare Building. Any RTKL request received by the department's Open Records Office after the close of regular business hours shall be deemed to have been received by that office on the following business day.
The AORO may respond by providing a requester with access to inspect a record electronically or as otherwise maintained by the department: by providing access in the offices of the department if agreed to by the requester; by sending a copy to the requester; or by notifying the requester that the record is available through publicly accessible electronic means and if the requester writes to the agency within 30 days that the requester is unable or unwilling to access the information electronically, by then providing the records in paper format, upon payment for the same. Each of these options is a "response" for purposes of the RTKL, as is the department's written notice to the requester granting, denying, or partially granting and partially denying access to a record. The department may send written responses to requesters by email, U.S. mail, by hand (in person or by delivery service), or by facsimile.
Unless a longer period of time is needed and communicated to the requester by an "interim response" (as discussed in paragraph A below), the RTKL requires that the Department respond to a RTKL request within five business days. For purposes of determining the end of the five-business-day period, the day that a RTKL request is received is not counted. The first day of the five-business-day period is the Department's next business day.
A. Interim Responses — The Department must provide a final response to a RTKL request within five business days unless one or more specific conditions are satisfied and the AORO gives the requester written notice that additional time will be required. That notice is referred to as an "interim response."
The AORO may send an interim response if any of the following applies:
- The RTKL request requires redaction of a public record;
- The RTKL request requires retrieval of a record from a remote location;
- A response within the five-business-day period cannot be accomplished due to bona fide staffing limitations;
- A legal review is necessary to determine whether the record requested is subject to access under the Act;
- The requester has not complied with the Department's policies regarding access to public records;
- The requester has not complied with a demand for prepayment of fees, which are required to fulfill the RTKL request and which are estimated to exceed $100; further, if prepayment of fees is required by the Department, the time period for response shall be tolled from the time the demand for payment is made until such time as payment is actually received; or
- The extent or nature of the request precludes a response within the required time period.
An interim response must: 1) be sent to the requester on or before the last day of the five-business-day period; 2) state that the request is being reviewed and the reason for the review; 3) give an estimate of any applicable fees owed when the record becomes available; and 4) state a reasonable date that a response is expected to be provided. This date must not be more than 30 calendar days from the end of the five-business-day period.
If the date of an expected response is in excess of 30 calendar days following the five business days allowed for pursuant to 65 P.S. § 67.901, the request will be deemed denied unless the requester has agreed in writing to the date specified in the notice.
The department will send an interim response when the estimated fee for responding to the request is in excess of $100. Once the estimated payment is received, the department will proceed to: 1) make a final determination as to what records, if any, are public records under the RTKL; 2) begin search and retrieval of those records; 3) perform any required redaction; and 4) advise the requester, within 30 days, as to a date by when any responsive public records will be produced. Failure to make the estimated payment by the date required by the department in its interim response will result in the request being denied for lack of payment.
B. Final Responses — There are three possible final responses. The request is: granted; denied; or granted in part and denied in part. The failure to make a timely response is deemed to be a denial.
If a written request is denied in whole or in part, the department will issue a final written response that will include an explanation of the procedure for the requester to appeal, if the requester chooses to do so. If the written denial is the result of a determination that the record requested is exempt from disclosure, the specific reasons, including any legal authority, for the department's determination shall be included.
Non-production of records due to the fact that a good faith search by the Department does not produce any responsive records is not a denial of access.
C. Redaction — The department will not deny access to a public record based upon the fact that portions of the record are not public records and, as a result, not subject to disclosure. The department will redact the portions of a public record that are not public records and produce the portions that are public records.
The following policies apply regarding redaction of information pertaining to persons applying for or receiving social services from the department. "Social services" are those services that are provided in whole or in part by the Department, including any assistance, benefits, services, treatments, or training provided to any person but not expressly included in the definition of "social services" set forth in the RTKL.
1. Protected Health Information. If a document is subject to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations at 45 CFR § 164.514 and is not a public record, the policy of the Department is to deny access to the document in its entirety. If the document is a public record, that regulation requires that the Department redact the following information before releasing it to a requester:
- Name of the patient/client
- All geographic subdivisions smaller than a state, including all of the following: Street address; City; County; Precinct; Zip Code, but the first three digits can be disclosed.
- All elements of dates, except year for dates directly related to the individual, including all of the following: Birth date; Admission date; Discharge date; Date of death; Specific age, if over 89 years old.
- Telephone numbers
- Fax numbers
- Email addresses
- Social Security numbers
- Medical record numbers
- Health plan beneficiary numbers
- Account numbers
- Certificate/license numbers
- Vehicle identifiers and serial numbers (including license plates)
- Device identifiers and serial numbers
- Web Universal Resource Locators (URLs)
- Internet Protocol (IP) address numbers
- Biometric identifiers, including finger and voiceprints
- Any other unique identifying number, characteristic, or code, except a code number assigned to allow "de-identified" information to be "re-identified," if the code number conforms to 45 CFR § 514.514(c).
2. Information About Relatives. The HIPAA regulations require that the same information be removed if it identifies the relatives of a patient/client.
3. Information About Household Members. The HIPAA regulations require that the same information be removed if it identifies the household members of a patient/client.
4. Information About Employers. The HIPAA regulations require that the same information be removed if it identifies the employers of a patient/client.
5. The Catch-All Provision. The HIPAA regulations also require the redaction of information that "could be used alone or in combination with other information to identify an individual who is a subject of the information."
6. Other Protected Information. If a document contains protected information about an applicant or recipient, or about a relative, household member or employers of such person, but is not subject to the HIPAA regulations at 45 CFR § 164.514, the department's policy is to refuse the request in its entirety if the document is not a "public record" and, if the document is a public record, to redact all protected information contained therein in accordance with the principles illustrated by the HIPAA regulations.
D. Access — The department may provide a requester with access to inspect a record electronically or as otherwise maintained by the department: by providing access in the offices of the department, if agreed to by the requester; by sending a copy to the requester; or by notifying the requester that the record is available through publicly accessible electronic means and, if the requester writes to the agency within 30 days that the requester is unable or unwilling to access the information electronically, by then providing the records in paper format, upon payment for the same.
The department will provide a public record to a requester in the medium requested if the record exists in that medium. Otherwise, the public record must be provided in the medium in which it exists. If a public record only exists in one medium, the department is not required to convert that public record to another medium, except that if the public record is only available in an electronic form, the department must print it out on paper if the requester so requests. However, the department is entitled to charge a fee for each page printed.
The department is not required to create a public record that does not already exist, nor is it required to compile, maintain, format, or organize a public record in a manner in which the department does not currently do so.
1. Access to Electronic Records
a. Publicly Accessible Records
If a record is accessible through any publicly accessible electronic means, it is an adequate response for the Department to notify the requester of the record's availability through that means. If the requester is unwilling or unable to access the record electronically, the requester has a right to a paper version of the record. In order to exercise that right, the requester must submit a written request to the Department in compliance with 65 P.S. § 67.704(b)(2). Many records of the Department are publicly accessible through the Internet:
- The Department maintains a publicly accessible website at www.dhs.pa.gov.
- Many of the Department's contracts are available through a website maintained by the Pennsylvania Treasury Department at www.patreasury.gov.
The RTKL does not require access to any computer either of an agency or [an] individual agency employee. Pursuant to that provision, the policy of the Department's Open Records Office is that it will not grant direct access to any electronic record of the Department except to the extent that access can be had by means of the publicly accessible websites above.
b. Electronic Records Not Publicly Accessible
If a requester seeks access to an electronic record and the Department's Open Records Office determines that the electronic record is a "public record," it will arrange for a copy of the record to be created and made available to the requester, in accordance with these policies.
c. Access to Department Databases
The policy of the Department is to deny any requests for direct access to Department databases. If the information contained in the database is a public record, access to the information may be provided by a copy of its contents, in the same medium and format in which the database currently exists, and compiled, maintained and organized in the existing manner; or a paper copy of the same data. If the data set sought by a requester cannot be drawn from a single database, the policy of the Department is to refuse the request on the basis that it would require the creation of a record that does not currently exist.
2. Access to Non-Electronic Records
The Department's Open Records Office may provide direct access to its non-electronic records at its location in the Health and Welfare Building, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Requesters may be supervised while reviewing records. Records may not be removed from the building and an appointment must be made during business hours for access.
If the requester asks in writing for physical access to records at a different, specified location, or if the records themselves require access at a different location and if the Department's AORO determines that access at that location is no more disruptive to the activities of the Department's Open Records Office and the affected program office than would be access in the Department's Open Records Office, the AORO may grant the request.
Appropriate conduct is required in the Department's Open Records Office. Examples of inappropriate conduct include, but are not limited to: shouting and/or unnecessarily loud speaking; use of profanity; verbal abuse of Department's Open Records Office staff; grabbing or touching Department's Open Records Office staff; defacing materials; removing or attempting to remove any records or other items; or playing music in a way that is audible to others. Use of the Department's Open Records Office will not be permitted if there is or has been prior inappropriate conduct or if requisite fees have not been paid. No eating or drinking is permitted in the Department's Open Records Office.
E. Duplication of Public Records
1. Department Photocopier Use. So long as the requester agrees to pay any applicable duplication fee, and can make immediate payment by check, a requester will be permitted reasonable use of the photocopier of the Department's Open Records Office, but only for the purpose of making photocopies, and only when that device is not needed by Department's Open Records Office staff.
2. Non-Department Devices or Electronic Equipment. At his or her own risk and expense, a requester may bring into the Department's Open Records Office any of the following devices, so long as the device can be transported in and out without disruption of the operations of the Department's Open Records Office: a photocopier, a laptop computer, or a scanner. It is unlawful for any person to take photographs within the Health and Welfare Building. Consequently, unless the requisite permission has been obtained in advance, requesters are not permitted to bring cameras of any sort, including digital cameras, film cameras, cameras that shoot still photographs, or cameras that capture moving images into the Health and Welfare Building. Prior permission is also required to bring any of the following into the Department's Open Records Office: tape recorders, video recording devices, radios, televisions, space heaters, and coffee makers. Requesters are permitted to bring cell phones into the Health and Welfare Building, but only on the condition that no still or moving photographs are taken.
When a request is denied or deemed denied, whether in whole or in part, the requester may file an appeal with the OOR, where it will be assigned to an Appeals Officer. This appeal must be filed within 15 business days of the denial or deemed denial. The appeal must state the grounds upon which the requester asserts that the record is public, and should address any grounds stated by the Department for delaying or denying the request. The appeal shall be sent to the OOR at the address set forth below and simultaneously to the agency AORO, in the same manner as the appeal is sent to the OOR (email, fax, mail or hand delivery) with: 1) the Department's response, 2) the RTKL request and 3) the appeal form that is available on the OOR website at www.openrecords.pa.gov/Appeals/HowToFile.cfm:
Commonwealth Office of Open Records
333 Market Street, 16th Floor
Harrisburg, PA 17126-0333
A person other than the Department or the requester, with a direct interest in the record that is subject to an appeal, has 15 days following actual knowledge of the appeal, but no later than the date the Appeals Officer issues an order, to file a written request to provide information or to appear before the Appeals Officer in support of the requester's or the Department's position in the appeal. The Appeals Officer may, but needs not, grant the request.
For further information on appeals, it is suggested that the requester review the OOR's website at www.openrecords.pa.gov.
Applicable fees to be charged by the Department under the RTKL are as follows:
A. Fees Determined by the Office of Open Records — Under the RTKL, the OOR has the authority to establish two fees for Commonwealth agencies: Duplication, 65 P.S. §67.1307(b); and Enhanced Electronic Access (an agency may establish user fees, subject to approval by the OOR), 65 P.S. 65 P.S. §67.1307(e).
The fees for duplication are established by the Office of Open Records, as posted on its website at www.openrecords.pa.gov. Unless otherwise directed by statute, the Department will charge $.25 per page for duplication.
Pursuant to this agency policy, an agency may waive duplication fees for 20 pages or less. Duplication charges are to be paid for any duplication in excess of 20 pages.
Requests for waiver of the duplication fee will be considered on a case-by-case basis. A person seeking such a waiver must explain why granting the waiver would be in the public interest.
B. Specialized Fees
1. The Department will charge $5 per record for certified copies, when requested by the requester.
2. The Department will charge the actual cost for postage, facsimile/microfiche, or other media such as CDs, as well as for specialized documents, except that postage fees will be waived for postage that costs under $1.00.
3. Special rules apply to fees for transcripts of administrative proceedings:
(i) Prior to an adjudication becoming "final, binding and non-appealable," transcripts may be requested through an agency; however, the stenographer or court reporter is permitted to charge the regular fee for this service.
(ii) Following an adjudication becoming "final, binding and non-appealable," a request for the transcript shall be treated like any other request for a record and the usual duplication fee of up to $.25 per page will be charged.
C. Reasonable and Necessarily Incurred Costs
As expressly provided by 65 P.S. §67.1307(g), the Department has the authority to charge requesters reasonable fees for necessarily incurred costs. The Department will determine and charge such fees on a case-by-case basis.
No charge shall be made for agency or legal review of the record to see whether the requested records are public records that are subject to production.
If the estimated fees that are required to fulfill the RTKL request exceed $100, the requester must pay the estimated amount in advance, either by certified check or by ordinary check, which must first have cleared to be considered received by the Department. The demand for prepayment will specify a reasonable period of time in which the requester must make such prepayment. Failure to make the estimated payment by the date required by the Department in its interim response will result in the request being denied for lack of payment.
All applicable fees must be paid in order to receive access to the record requested. 65 P.S. §67.901. Any requester who has unpaid amounts outstanding to the Department or to any agency under the Governor's jurisdiction, in relation to RTKL requests where production was made by any such agency, will not be granted access to records under other RTKL requests until such prior amounts due have been paid in full.
V. Access to Records Outside of RTKL Requests
RTKL requests will be denied if the records requested are not public records under the RTKL. However, in certain circumstances, an alternative route may be available to gain access to some records outside of the RTKL. It is not the duty or function of the Department's Open Records Office to determine whether a requester satisfies the conditions for access through any route other than the RTKL. For that reason, where an alternate route may be available, the final response letter will provide information on how to pursue that route.