HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) drives the Standards for Privacy of Individual Health Information (“Privacy Rule”) which establishes a set of national standards for the protection of specific health info.
The privacy rule standards address the security, use, and disclosure of an individual’s health info “PHI” (personal health info) by organizations subject to the privacy rules. HIPAA also governs the requirement to allow employees to transfer from one medical plan to another without being subject to pre-existing conditions if they had creditable coverage. This article focuses on the privacy part of HIPAA.
Who is Covered by the HIPAA Privacy Rule?
Employers are covered by the Privacy Rule when they self-insure or enter into an insurance agreement with a provider. But they receive, manage, or disclose protected health info as a group health plan or perform certain record-keeping functions, like transmitting individual health records to a group plan. There may be other times where employers have access to confidential employee health data, such as receiving PHI information from the employee’s doctors or directly from the employee.
What Information is Protected?
The following are examples of protected PHI “Personal Health Information”:
- health information including demographic info collected from an individual, in all forms, including but not limited to electronic, written, and oral;
- info created or received by a provider, health plan, employer, or health care clearinghouse;
- info relating to the physical or mental health or condition of an individual, at any time including past and future;
- info related to payment of health benefits;
- can use info identifying an individual; and
- info in the possession or control of a covered entity (45 CFR §§ 106.103 & 501).
Use & Disclosure
A covered entity may not use or disclose PHI, except as permitted or required by the Privacy Rule section 164.524 (access) or 164.528 (accounting), to HHS for investigation or compliance application, health plan contact with enrollees, and provider contact with the patient.
Authorization is required for uses and disclosures not otherwise permitted or required by the Rule. Covered entities must make reasonable efforts to limit the use or disclosure of and requests for PHI to the minimum amount necessary to accomplish the intended purpose.
Notice & Other Individual Rights
The Privacy Rule provides that an individual has a right to adequate notice of how a covered entity may use and disclose protected health info about the individual, as well as their rights and the covered entity’s obligations concerning that info. Most covered entities must develop and provide individuals with this notice of their privacy practices.
Providing the Notice: A covered entity must make its notice available to any person who asks for it. It must prominently post and make available its notice on any website it maintains that provides info about its customer services or benefits. A covered entity may email the notice to an individual if the individual agrees to receive an electronic notice. See 45 CFR 164.520(c) for the specific requirements for providing the notice.
What is appropriate for one covered entity versus another will depend on the nature of the covered entity’s business, size, and resources. Each covered entity must analyze its own
Compare those to the administrative requirements indicate here and implement a solution appropriate for their environment.
- Privacy Policies & Procedures: develop and implement written privacy policies and procedures that are consistent with the Privacy
- Privacy Personnel: designate a privacy official responsible for developing and implementing privacy policies and procedures and a contact person or contact office responsible for receiving complaints and providing individuals with info on Privacy
- Workforce Training & Management: train all workforce members on its privacy policies and procedures, as necessary and appropriate for them to carry out their functions, have and apply appropriate sanctions against workforce members who violate its privacy policies and procedures or the Privacy
- Mitigation: mitigate, to the extent practicable, any harmful effect it learns was caused by use or disclosure of protected health info by its workforce or its business associates in violation of privacy policies and procedures or Privacy
- Data Safeguards: maintain reasonable and appropriate administrative, technical, and physical safeguards to prevent intentional or unintentional use or disclosure of protected health info in violation of the Privacy Rule and limit its incidental use and disclosure according to otherwise permitted or required use or disclosure. For example, such safeguards might include shredding documents containing protected health info before discarding them, securing medical records with lock and key or passcode, and limiting access to keys or passcodes. Secure or encrypt all data stored or transferred electronically. Lock up PHI info and employee files. It is good to separate PHI employee information from other employee file contents into a confidential, non-supervisor accessible file.
- Complaints: have procedures for individuals to complain about its compliance with privacy policies and procedures and the Privacy Rule, explain those procedures in its privacy practices notice, identify to whom individuals can submit complaints at the covered entity, and advise that complaints also can be submitted to the Secretary of
- Retaliation & Waiver: may not retaliate against a person for exercising rights provided by the Privacy Rule, for assisting in an investigation by HHS or another appropriate authority, or for opposing an act or practice the person believes in good faith violates the Privacy Rule, nor require an individual to waive any right under the Privacy Rule as a condition for obtaining treatment, payment, and enrollment or benefits
- Documentation & Record Retention: maintain, until six years after the later of the date of their creation or last effective date, its privacy policies and procedures, its privacy practices notices, disposition of complaints, and other actions, activities, and designations that the Privacy Rule requires to be documented.
- Fully-Insured Group Health Plan Exception: The only administrative obligations with which a fully- insured group health plan that has no more than enrollment data and summary health info is required to comply are (1) ban on retaliatory acts and Waiver of individual rights, and (2) documentation requirements concerning plan documents, if such documents are amended to provide for the disclosure of protected health info to the plan sponsor by a health insurance issuer or HMO that services the group health
The HIPAA Security Standard consists of five major sections, administrative safeguards, physical safeguards, technical safeguards, organizational requirements, and policy and document requirements. A good HIPAA policy will address, develop, and put in place steps dealing with each of these areas of risk.
Notification of Breach
The HITECH Act now imposes data breach notification requirements for unauthorized uses and disclosures of “unsecured PHI.” Under the HITECH Act, “unsecured PHI” essentially means “unencrypted PHI.”
In general, the Act requires patients to be notified of any unsecured breach. If a breach impacts 500 patients or more, then must also notify HHS. Furthermore, notification is triggered whether the unsecured breach occurred externally or internally.
In general, State Laws contrary to the Privacy Rule are preempted by the federal requirement, which means the federal requirement will apply.
Compliance with the HIPAA Privacy Rule is not optional, and it is the law. Employers will avoid costly fines by following the requirements described in this article.
COVID-19 & HIPAA Updates:
- OCR Announces Notification of Enforcement Discretion for Use of Online or Web-Based Scheduling Applications for the Scheduling of COVID-19 Vaccination Appointments – January 19, 2021
- OCR Issues Guidance on HIPAA, Health Information Exchanges, and Disclosures of Protected Health Information for Public Health Purposes – December 18, 2020
- Trump Administration Adds Health Plans to June 2020 Plasma Donation Guidance – August 24, 2020
- OCR Issues Guidance on How Health Care Providers Can Contact Former COVID-19 Patients About Blood and Plasma Donation Opportunities – June 12, 2020
- OCR Issues Guidance on Covered Health Care Providers and Restrictions on Media Access to Protected Health Information about Individuals in Their Facilities – May 5, 2020
- OCR Announces Notification of Enforcement Discretion for Community-Based Testing Sites During the COVID-19 Nationwide Public Health Emergency – April 9, 2020
- OCR Announces Notification of Enforcement Discretion to Allow Uses and Disclosures of Protected Health Information by Business Associates for Public Health and Health Oversight Activities During The COVID-19 Nationwide Public Health Emergency – April 2, 2020
- OCR Issues Bulletin on Civil Rights Laws and HIPAA Flexibilities That Apply During the COVID-19 Emergency – March 28,2020
- OCR Issues Guidance to Help Ensure First Responders and Others Receive Protected Health Information about Individuals Exposed to COVID-19 – March 24, 2020
- OCR Issues Guidance on Telehealth Remote Communications Following Its Notification of Enforcement Discretion – March 20, 2020
- OCR Announces Notification of Enforcement Discretion for Telehealth Remote Communications During the COVID-19 Nationwide Public Health Emergency – March 17, 2020
By Deborah Siddoway, HR Coach