The Rights of Requesters and the Responsibilities of the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act
The Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), located § 2.2-3700 et. seq. of the Code of Virginia, guarantees citizens of the Commonwealth and representatives of the media access to public records held by public bodies, public officials, and public employees.
A public record is any writing or recording -- regardless of whether it is a paper record, an electronic file, an audio or video recording, or any other format -- that is prepared or owned by, or in the possession of a public body or its officers, employees or agents in the transaction of public business. All public records are presumed to be open, and may only be withheld if a specific, statutory exemption applies.
The policy of FOIA states that the purpose of FOIA is to promote an increased awareness by all persons of governmental activities. In furthering this policy, FOIA requires that the law be interpreted liberally, in favor of access, and that any exemption allowing public records to be withheld must be interpreted narrowly.
Your FOIA Rights
- You have the right to request to inspect or receive copies of public records, or both.
- You have the right to request that any charges for the requested records be estimated in advance.
- If you believe that your FOIA rights have been violated, you may file a petition in district or circuit court to compel compliance with FOIA.
- You may request records by U.S. Mail, fax, e-mail, in person, or over the phone. FOIA does not require that your request be in writing, nor do you need to specifically state that you are requesting records under FOIA.
- From a practical perspective, it may be helpful to both you and the person receiving your request to put your request in writing. This allows you to create a record of your request. It also gives us a clear statement of what records you are requesting, so that there is no misunderstanding over a verbal request. However, we cannot refuse to respond to your FOIA request if you elect to not put it in writing.
- Your request must identify the records you are seeking with "reasonable specificity." This is a common-sense standard. It does not refer to or limit the volume or number of records that you are requesting; instead, it requires that you be specific enough so that we can identify and locate the records that you are seeking.
- Your request must ask for existing records or documents. FOIA gives you a right to inspect or copy records; it does not apply to a situation where you are asking general questions about the work of VDH, nor does it require VDH to create a record that does not exist.
- You may choose to receive electronic records in any format used by VDH in the regular course of business.
- For example, if you are requesting records maintained in an Excel database, you may elect to receive those records electronically, via e-mail or on a computer disk, or to receive a printed copy of those records.
- If we have questions about your request, please cooperate with staff’s efforts to clarify the type of records that you are seeking, or to attempt to reach a reasonable agreement about a response to a large request. Making a FOIA request is not an adversarial process, but we may need to discuss your request with you to ensure that we understand what records you are seeking.
- To request records from VDH, you may direct your request to:
VDH FOIA Officer
Virginia Department of Health
109 Governor Street
Richmond, VA 23219
- For routine FOIA requests related to engineering/environmental studies, records, or investigations, please direct your request (by email or telephone) to the local health district’s Environmental Health Manager. The district directory published on our website contains the necessary contact information. Please note that email addresses for VDH staff (other than Fairfax and Arlington) are composed as follows: firstname.lastname@example.org. You also may contact Tammie Smith with questions you have concerning requesting records from VDH. In addition, the Freedom of Information Advisory Council is available to answer any questions you may have about FOIA. The Council may be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com, or by phone at (804) 225-3056 or [toll free] 1-866-448-4100.
- VDH must respond to your request within five working days of receiving it. "Day One" is considered the day after your request is received. The five-day period does not include weekends or holidays.
- The reason behind your request for public records from VDH is irrelevant, and we cannot ask you why you want the records before we respond to your request. FOIA does, however, allow VDH to ask you to provide your name and legal address.
- FOIA requires that VDH make one of the following responses to your request within the five-day time period:
- We provide you with the records that you have requested in their entirety.
- We withhold all of the records that you have requested, because all of the records are subject to a specific statutory exemption. If all of the records are being withheld, we must send you a response in writing. That writing must identify the volume and subject matter of the records being withheld, and state the specific section of the Code of Virginia that allows us to withhold the records.
- We provide some of the records that you have requested, but withhold other records. We cannot withhold an entire record if only a portion of it is subject to an exemption. In that instance, we may redact the portion of the record that may be withheld, and must provide you with the remainder of the record. We must provide you with a written response stating the specific section of the Code of Virginia that allows portions of the requested records to be withheld.
- If it is practically impossible for VDH to respond to your request within the five-day period, we must state this in writing, explaining the conditions that make the response impossible. This will allow us seven additional working days to respond to your request, giving us a total of 12 working days to respond to your request.
- If you make a request for a very large number of records, and we feel that we cannot provide the records to you within 12 days without disrupting our other organizational responsibilities, we may petition the court for additional time to respond to your request. However, FOIA requires that we make a reasonable effort to reach an agreement with you concerning the production or the records before we go to court to ask for more time.
- You may have to pay for the records that you request from VDH. VDH may make reasonable charges not to exceed its actual costs incurred in accessing, duplicating, supplying, or searching for the requested records and shall make all reasonable efforts to supply the requested records at the lowest possible cost. Actual costs include items like staff time spent searching for the requested records, copying costs, or any other costs directly related to supplying the requested records. It cannot include general overhead costs.
- If we estimate that it will cost more than $200 to respond to your request, we may require you to pay a deposit, not to exceed the amount of the estimate, before proceeding with your request. The five days that we have to respond to your request does not include the time between when we ask for a deposit and when you respond.
- You may request that we estimate in advance the charges for supplying the records that you have requested. This will allow you to know about any costs up front or give you the opportunity to modify your request in an attempt to lower the estimated costs. VDH will provide a cost estimate in advance upon request.
- VDH may assess charges for staff time to search for, review, copy, redact, and otherwise prepare records for release. The estimated cost is based on the hourly salary of the staff member or members processing the request.
Cost = (Hourly salary of VDH employee processing the request) X (time spent fulfilling the request) PLUS (cost of paper and copying if providing paper records) PLUS (cost of any special medium, such as a disc or usb drive, if necessary, to provide records) PLUS costs to mail records.
- For requests seeking extensive email searches, (emails from multiple staff members and/or time periods extending back several months or more) VDH may use the following process and formula to retrieve emails and calculate costs:
- The Microsoft Purview eDiscovery tool is used to search staff email archives. A search is done to retrieve emails based on the requester’s search parameters. Based on the number of emails retrieved, costs are estimated according to the formula below.
Step 1: (Total number of emails) x (2 minutes per email to review) = total number of minutes to review emails
Step 2: (Number of review minutes) divided by (60 minutes) = total number of hours needed to review emails
Step 3: (Hourly rate of staff person reviewing emails) x (number of review hours) = estimated cost.
- If you owe us money from a previous FOIA request that has remained unpaid for more than 30 days, VDH may require payment of the past-due bill before it will respond to your new FOIA request.
- VDH’s Local Health Districts calculate FOIA charges based on their work units’ costs.
The Code of Virginia allows any public body to withhold certain records from public disclosure. VDH commonly withholds records subject to the following exemptions:
- Personnel records (§ 2.2-3705.1 (1) of the Code of Virginia);
- Records subject to attorney-client privilege (§ 2.2-3705.1 (2)) or attorney work product (§ 2.2-3705.1 (3));
- Vendor proprietary information (§ 2.2-3705.1 (6));
- Records relating to the negotiation and award of a contract, prior to a contract being awarded (§ 2.2-3705.1 (12));
- Medical and mental records (§ 2.2-3705.5(1) of the Code of Virginia);
- Information and records collected for the designation and verification of trauma centers and other specialty care centers within the Statewide Emergency Medical Services System and Services pursuant to Article 2.1 (§ 32.1-111.1 et seq.) of Chapter 4 of Title 32.1. (§ 2.2-3705.5(5) of the Code of Virginia);
- Data formerly required to be submitted to the Commissioner of Health relating to the establishment of new or the expansion of existing clinical health services, acquisition of major medical equipment, or certain projects requiring capital expenditures pursuant to former § 32.1-102.3:4. (§ 2.2-3705.5(7) of the Code of Virginia);
- Any record copied, recorded or received by the Commissioner of Health in the course of an examination, investigation or review of a managed care health insurance plan licensee pursuant to §§ 32.1-137.4 and 32.1-137.5, including books, records, files, accounts, papers, documents, and any or all computer or other recordings.(§ 2.2-3705.5(13) of the Code of Virginia);
- Patient level data collected by the Board of Health and not yet processed, verified, and released, pursuant to § 32.1-276.9, to the Board by the nonprofit organization with which the Commissioner of Health has contracted pursuant to § 32.1-276.4.(§ 2.2-3705.5(10) of the Code of Virginia); and
- Plans and information to prevent or respond to terrorist activity.(§ 2.2- 3705.2(4) of the Code of Virginia).