Orange County’s Health Care Agency wants to charge $54,371 for a response to a Voice of OC public records request to review emails from the last six months of 2012 – a whopping $338.14 for each day of emails reviewed.

The request asks for electronic copies of any emails that refer to six drugs and were exchanged between Dr. Clayton Chau, a former psychiatrist at the agency, and members of its formulary committee. The committee routinely evaluated the master list of the agency’s approved medications between 2007 and 2012.

In July, a Voice of OC article revealed that Chau accepted at least $149,000 in speaking fees from pharmaceutical companies while working at the agency, with $84,250 of that total in apparent violation of an agency policy against accepting such payments.

Reviewing the emails could shed light on how the agency evaluated the merits of six top-selling antipsychotic drugs that are manufactured by companies from which Chau received payments.

According to the agency’s public records custodian, Rey Montoya, Chau left the agency in 2012, so restoring his mailbox for the last six months of 2012 “has technical limitations, and the process is extensive.”

Montoya said the agency must recall and restore email tapes from its vendor, which they estimate could take up to 162 days.

Voice of OC has requested a breakdown of this cost estimate.

The California Public Records Act, established in 1968, does not allow government entities to charge fees for inspecting records or the cost to search, review and delete information. They can, however, charge for the cost of copies and for data compilation and extraction of information from electronic records.

The agency has also denied a separate request to review all prescriptions, with patient information redacted, that were written by Chau between 2009 and 2012, including information about the drug prescribed, dosage and condition being treated. In its refusal, the agency cited patient privacy laws and the lack of electronic record keeping.

According to spokeswoman Deanne Thompson, the agency does not keep searchable, electronic records of prescriptions written by its doctors, nor does it keep any record of how much and with what frequency doctors are prescribing any individual drug.

“We don’t aggregate prescriptions in any way. It isn’t something that’s meaningful for us to track,” said Thompson.

According to Thompson, physicians periodically conduct peer reviews by evaluating patient charts and commenting to the attending clinician. But there is no system whereby the agency can evaluate the overall prescribing activity of its doctors.

The agency estimated that in order to provide the requested information, its staff would have to review files for each patient ever seen by Chau, which could take up to 700 hours.

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