In our most recent post, the Top 5 Common HIPAA Mistakes to Avoid in 2018, we noted that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has recently published guidance on disclosing protected health information (PHI) related to overdose victims. OCR published this and other guidance within the last two months in response to the Opioid Crisis gripping the nation and confusion regarding when and to whom PHI of patient’s suffering from addiction or mental illness may be disclosed.

Pills and capsules on white backgroundTo make the guidance easily accessible to patients and health care professionals, OCR published two webpages, one dedicated to patients and their family members and the other dedicated to professionals.

  • Patients and their family members can find easy-to-read commentary addressing the disclosure of PHI in situations of overdose, incapacity or other mental health issues here.
  • Physicians and other health care professionals can find similar fact sheets tailored to their roles as covered entities here.
  • OCR also recently issued a two-page document summarizing its guidance on when health care professionals may disclose PHI related to opioid abuse and incapacity [accessible here].

The main points from this guidance include:

  1. If a patient has the capacity to make decisions regarding his or her health care, a health care professional may not generally share any PHI with family, friends or others involved in the patient’s care (or payment for care), unless the patient consents to such disclosure.  However, a health care professional may disclose PHI if there is a serious and imminent threat of harm to the patient’s health and the provider in good faith believes that the individual to whom the information is disclosed would be reasonably able (or in a position) to prevent or lessen such threat. According to OCR, in the context of opioid abuse, this rule allows a physician to disclose information about the patient’s opioid abuse to any individual to whom the physician in good faith believes could reasonably prevent or lessen the harm that could be caused by the patient’s continued opioid abuse following discharge.
  2. If the patient is incapacitated or unconscious, HIPAA allows health care professionals to disclose certain PHI to family and close friends without a patient’s permission where (i) the individuals are involved in the care of the patient, (ii) the health care professional determines that disclosing the information is in the best interests of the patient, and (iii) the PHI shared is directly related to the family or friend’s involvement in the patient’s health care (or payment for such health care). As an example, OCR clarified that a physician may, in his or her professional judgment, share PHI regarding an opioid overdose and related medical information with the parents of someone who is incapacitated due to an overdose.
  3. OCR also addressed the difficult situation where a patient is severely intoxicated or unconscious, but may regain sufficient capacity to make health care decisions several hours after arriving in the emergency room.   In such situations, HIPAA would allow a physician or nurse to share PHI related to the patient’s overdose and medical condition with the patient’s family or close personal friends while the patient is incapacitated, so long as the nurse or doctor believes that it is in the patient’s best interest to do so and the information shared with the family member or friend is related to the individual’s involvement in the patient’s health care.

OCR published similar guidance, available at the above websites, regarding the disclosure of PHI related to the mental health of a patient.  Included in that guidance is clarification that HIPAA does not prohibit treating physicians from sharing PHI of a patient with a mental illness or substance use disorder for treatment purposes, except in the case of psychotherapy notes.

However, it is important to understand that OCR’s guidance on these issues does not supersede state laws or other federal laws or rules of medical ethics that would apply to disclosure of a patient’s PHI, including the federal confidentiality regulations [located at 42 CFR Part 2] pertaining to patient records maintained in connection with certain federally-assisted substance use disorder treatment programs.  The “Part 2” regulations (as well as state patient confidentiality laws that are more restrictive than HIPAA) could prohibit some or all of the disclosures which OCR has now clarified are permitted under HIPAA.

If you have a question regarding how this new guidance may affect your practice, please contact a knowledgeable attorney.

 

In some respects, HIPAA has had a design problem from its inception. HIPAA is well known today as the federal law that requires protection of individually identifiable health information (and, though lesser-known, individual access to health information), but privacy and security were practically after-thoughts when HIPAA was enacted back in 1996. HIPAA (the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act) was originally described as an act:

To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to improve portability and continuity of health insurance coverage in the group and individual markets, to combat waste, fraud, and abuse in health insurance and health care delivery, to promote the use of medical savings accounts, to improve access to long-term care services and coverage, to simplify the administration of health insurance, and for other purposes.”

The privacy of individually identifiable health information was one of those “other purposes” only peripherally included in the 1996 act. Privacy protection was to be a follow-up, a “to-do” checklist item for the future. HIPAA directed the Secretary of Health and Human Services to recommend privacy standards to specified congressional committees within a year of enactment, and, if Congress did not enact privacy legislation within 3 years of enactment, the Secretary was to proceed with the promulgation of privacy regulations. Security was a bit more urgent, at least in the context of electronic health transactions such as claims, enrollment, eligibility, payment, and coordination of benefits. HIPAA required the Secretary to adopt standards for the security of electronic health information systems within 18 months of enactment.

This historical context casts some light on why our 2017-era electronic health records (EHR) systems often lack interoperability and yet are vulnerable to security breaches. HIPAA may be partially to blame, since it was primarily designed to make health insurance more portable and to encourage health insurers and providers to conduct transactions electronically. Privacy and security were the “oh, yeah, that too” add-ons to be fully addressed once electronic health information transactions were underway and EHR systems needed to support them already up and running. Since 1996, EHRs have developed at a clunky provider-by-provider (or health system-by-health system) and patient encounter-by-patient encounter basis, not only making them less accurate and efficient, but vulnerable to privacy and security lapses. (Think of the vast quantity of patient information breached when a hospital’s EHR or a health plan’s claims data base is hacked.)

This past June, I participated on a California Israel Medical Technology Summit panel discussing privacy and security issues. An audience member asked the panel whether we thought blockchain technology was the answer to HIPAA and other privacy and security-related legal requirements. I didn’t have a good answer, thinking “isn’t that the technology used to build Bitcoin, the payment system used by data hackers everywhere?”

This past July, Ritesh Gandotra, a director of global outsourcing for Xerox, wrote that blockchain technology could overhaul our “crippled” EHR management system. Gandotra writes “Historically, EHRs were never really designed to manage multi-institutional and lifetime medical records; in fact, patients tend to leave media data scattered across various medical institutes … This transition of data often leads to the loss of patient data.” He goes on to explain how blockchain, the “distributed ledger” technology originally associated with Bitcoin, can be used to link discrete patient records (or data “blocks”) contained in disparate EHRs into “an append-only, immutable, timestamped chain of content.”

Using blockchain technology to reconfigure EHRs makes sense. Ironically, the design flaw inherent in HIPAA’s original 1996 design (the promotion of electronic health transactions to foster portability and accountability in the health insurance context while treating privacy and security as an afterthought) can be fixed using the very same technology that built the payment network favored by ransomware hackers.

A patient requests a copy of her medical record, and the hospital charges the per-page amount permitted under state law. Does this violate HIPAA? It may.

In the spring of 2016, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that enforces HIPAA, issued a new guidance document on individuals’ right to access their health information under HIPAA (“Access Guidance”).   The Access Guidance reminds covered entities that state laws that provide individuals with a greater right of access (for example, where the state law requires that access be given within a shorter time frame than that required by HIPAA, or allows individuals a free copy of medical records) preempt HIPAA, but state laws that are contrary to HIPAA’s access rights (such as where the state law prohibits disclosure to an individual of certain health information, like test reports) are preempted by HIPAA.

For New Jersey physicians, for example, this means they may not automatically charge $1.00 per page or $100.00 for the a copy of the entire medical record, whatever is less, despite the fact that the New Jersey Board of Medical Examiners (“BME”) expressly permits these charges.  In fact, according to the Access Guidance, physicians should not charge “per page” fees at all unless they maintain medical records in paper form only.  New Jersey physicians also may not charge the “administrative fee” of the lesser of $10.00 or 10% of the cost of reproducing x-rays and other documents that cannot be reproduced by ordinary copying machines.  Instead, a New Jersey physician may charge only the lesser of the charges permitted by the BME or those permitted under HIPAA, as described below.

HIPAA limits the amount that covered entities may charge a patient (or third party) requesting access to medical records to only a “reasonable, cost-based fee to provide the individual (or the individual’s personal representative) with a copy” of the record.  Only the following may be charged:   

(1) the reasonable cost of labor for creating and delivering the electronic or paper copy in the form and format requested or agreed upon by the individual, but not costs associated with reviewing the request, searching for or retrieving the records, and segregating or “otherwise preparing” the record for copying;  

(2) the cost of supplies for creating the paper copy (e.g., paper, toner) or electronic media (e.g., CD or USB drive) if the individual requests the records in portable electronic media; and  

(3) actual postage costs, when the individual requests mailing. 

The fee may also include the reasonable cost of labor to prepare an explanation or summary of the record, but only if the individual, in advance, chooses to receive and explanation or summary AND agrees to the fee to be charged for the explanation or the summary.   

A provider may calculate its actual labor costs each time an individual requests access, or may develop a schedule of costs for labor based on the average (and HIPAA-permitted types of) labor costs incurred in fulfilling standard types of access requests.  However, a provider is NOT permitted to charge an average labor cost as a per-page fee unless the medical record is: (1) maintained in paper form; and (2) the individual requests a paper copy or asks that the paper record be scanned into an electronic format.  Thus, under HIPAA, a per-page fee is not permitted for medical records that are maintained electronically.  As stated in the Access Guidance, “OCR does not consider per page fees for copies of … [protected health information] maintained electronically to be reasonable” for purposes of complying with the HIPAA rules.   

A provider may also decide to charge a flat fee of up to $6.50 (inclusive of labor, supplies, and any applicable postage) for requests for electronic copies of medical records maintained electronically.    OCR explains that the $6.50 is not a maximum, simply an alternative that may be used if the provider does not want to go through the process of calculating actual or average allowable costs for requests for electronic copies. 

OCR has identified compliance with “individual access rights” as one of seven areas of focus in the HIPAA audits of covered entities and business associates currently underway, signaling its concern that physicians and other covered entities may be violating HIPAA in this respect.  All covered entities should, therefore, calculate what HIPAA permits them to charge when copies of medical records are requested by an individual (or someone acting at the direction of or as a personal representative of an individual), compare that amount to the applicable state law charge limits, and make sure that only the lesser of the two amounts is charged.

 

Last week, I blogged about a recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights (OCR) announcement on its push to investigate smaller breaches (those involving fewer than 500 individuals).   The week before that, my partner and fellow blogger Michael Kline wrote about OCR’s guidance on responding to cybersecurity incidents.  Today, TechRepublic Staff Writer Alison DeNisco addresses how a small or medium sized business (MSB) can deal with the heightened threat of OCR investigations or lawsuits emanating from a security breach.  Alison’s piece, “Security breaches:  How small businesses can avoid a HIPAA lawsuit”, is must-read for MSBs struggling to understand and prioritize their cybersecurity needs.

Michael and I spoke with Alison about the recent OCR pronouncements, and she pulled several of our comments together to create a list of tips for an SMB to consider to minimize HIPAA security breach headaches. The following 6 tips are excerpted from the full article:

  1. Hire a credible consultant to help you approach the issue, and how you would respond in the event of a breach. [In other words, perform your own security risk assessment, or, if impractical, hire an expert to perform one.]
  2. Document that you have policies and procedures in place to fight cyber crime. “If you didn’t document it, it didn’t happen,” Kline said.
  3. Stay informed of cybersecurity news in your industry, or join an association. Be aware of what other companies in your space are doing to protect themselves.
  4. Update your security settings on a regular basis, perhaps every time you add new employees or change systems, or on an annual basis.
  5. Present annually to your company board on where the company is in terms of cybersecurity protection, and where it needs to be to remain as safe as possible in the future.
  6. If you’re an IT consultant working with a healthcare organization, be clear with your client what you need to access and when, Litten said. “A client that has protected health information in its software should carefully delineate who has access to that software,” she added.

The article also quotes Ebba Blitz, CEO of Alertsec, who offers an equally important tip for the SMB dealing with employees’ use of mobile devices that contain or are used to transmit PHI:

“You need a good plan for mitigating BYOD,” Blitz said. She further recommends asking employees to document their devices, so businesses can keep track of them and install security tools.”

In summary, confronting ever-growing and evolving challenges of cybersecurity for SMBs is dependent upon serious planning, development and implementation of current policies and procedures, documentation of cybersecurity measures taken and entity-wide commitment to the efforts.

“Maybe” is the take-away from recent guidance posted on OCR’s mHealth Developer Portal, making me wonder whether the typical health app user will know when her health information is or is not subject to HIPAA protection.

The guidance is clear and straightforward and contains no real surprises to those of us familiar with HIPAA, but it highlights the reality that HIPAA, originally enacted close to 20 years ago, often becomes murky in the context of today’s constantly developing technology. Here’s an excerpt from the guidance that illustrates this point:

Consumer downloads to her smart phone a mobile PHR app offered by her health plan that offers users in its network the ability to request, download and store health plan records. The app also contains the plan’s wellness tools for members, so they can track their progress in improving their health.  Health plan analyzes health information and data about app usage to understand the effectiveness of its health and wellness offerings.  App developer also offers a separate, direct-to-consumer version of the app that consumers can use to store, manage, and organize their health records, to improve their health habits and to send health information to providers.

Is the app developer a business associate under HIPAA, such that the app user’s information is subject to HIPAA protection?

Yes, with respect to the app offered by the health plan, and no, when offering the direct-to-consumer app. Developer is a business associate of the health plan, because it is creating, receiving, maintaining, or transmitting protected health information (PHI) on behalf of a covered entity.  Developer must comply with applicable HIPAA Rules requirements with respect to the PHI involved in its work on behalf of the health plan.  But its “direct-to-consumer” product is not provided on behalf of a covered entity or other business associate, and developer activities with respect to that product are not subject to the HIPAA Rules.  Therefore, as long as the developer keeps the health information attached to these two versions of the app separate, so that information from the direct-to-consumer version is not part of the product offering to the covered entity health plan, the developer does not need to apply HIPAA protections to the consumer information obtained through the “direct-to-consumer” app.

So if I download this app because my health plan offers it, my PHI should be HIPAA-protected, but what if I inadvertently download the “direct-to-consumer” version? Will it look different or warn me that my information is not protected by HIPAA?  Will the app developer have different security controls for the health plan-purchased app versus the direct-to-consumer app?

HIPAA only applies to (and protects) individually identifiable health information created, received, maintained or transmitted by a covered entity or business associate, so perhaps health app users should be given a “Notice of Non-(HIPAA) Privacy Practices” before inputting health information into an app that exists outside the realm of HIPAA protection.

My partner Elizabeth G. Litten and I were interviewed by Marla Durben Hirsch in the FierceEMR article “Healthcare Attorneys: New Business Relationships Will Create New EHR Problems.” It is always a pleasure for us to talk with Marla because she provokes our thinking in new areas.  While the full text can be found here as part of the December 19, 2013, issue of FierceEMR, a synopsis is noted below.

The healthcare industry already has experienced several unintended issues related to electronic health records, many of which involve privacy and security, patient safety and coding. But as implementation of EHRs begins to mature and providers step up organizational consolidation and integration in response to health reform, there will be additional unanticipated operational and business problems involving EHRs that will arise.

Confused about EHR certification? You’re not alone. In a post to the federal HealthIT Buzz blog entitled Perpetually Perplexed by Regulatory Interpretations? Separate the Fact from Fiction,  Steven Posnack , the Director of the Federal Policy Division of  the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) has debunked five common misunderstandings related to EHR certification:

  • If an eligible professional or eligible hospital combines multiple certified electronic health record (EHR) Modules together (or a certified EHR Module[s] with a certified Complete EHR), that combination also needs to be separately certified in order for it to meet the definition of Certified EHR Technology – *FICTION*
  • The ONC-Authorized Testing and Certification Bodies (ONC-ATCBs) operate under contract with and receive funding from ONC – *FICTION*
  • The ONC-ATCBs favor big EHR technology developers – *FICTION*
  • As an EP or EH, you need to demonstrate meaningful use in the exact way that EHR technology was tested and certified – *FICTION* (mostly)  See the jointly posted ONC and CMS FAQs (#24 or 10473
  • Certifications “expire” every two years – *FICTION*

Posnack’s article confirmed two additional frequently-heard statements as factual:

  • Testing and certification under the Temporary Certification Program does not examine whether two randomly combined EHR Modules will be compatible or work together – *FACT*  
  • Certification doesn’t require that an EHR technology designed by one EHR developer make its data accessible or “portable” to another EHR technology designed by a different developer – *FACT*

A study conducted by MGMA indicates most doctors surveyed who have implemented electronic record systems are satisfied or very satisfied, and many report increased productivity and reduced costs as those systems are optimized, according to Modern Healthcare.  The full MGMA study may be downloaded here (registration required).  This report is highly recommended reading.

The study, funded by PNC Bank, tabulated over 4,500 responses from a variety of organizations representing over 120,000 physicians, over half of them in independent private practice. Of the respondents, 16.3 percent believed they had optimized their EHR.   One surprising finding – independent physicians are farther along in the process than hospital-employed physicians: 

Finding independent practices further along in EHR optimization than IDS- and hospital-owned practices might seem surprising at first glance. As components of larger systems with greater access to financial and technical resources and expertise, IDS- and hospital-owned practices would seem more likely to lead rather than trail independent practices in EHR adoption. Yet, aspects of hospital and IDS-ownership may slow EHR adoption; it also may slow integration of EHR with other technologies

The leading barrier to implementation of EHR cited was “Expected loss of productivity during transition to the EHR system”, followed closely by “Insufficient capital resources to invest in an EHR.” 

Most telling is Figure 12 in the report, which shows 85.8% of "optimized" EHR users satisfied or very satisfied with their systems overall; 56.5% of such users satisfied with the ability of the EHR to decrease practice costs; 61% of such users satisfied with the ability of the EHR to increase provider productivity; and 60.8% satisfied with the ability of EHR to increase practice revenue.  MGMA concludes:

These data indicate that EHR users find reaching full optimization of their system produces benefits, and that they are more likely to perceive these benefits than other users. Efforts to optimize an EHR implementation are likely to produce tangible benefits for a majority of EHR users.

 

 

 The American Hospital Association (AHA) weighed in with a 16-page comment letter requesting changes and delays in the standards for certification and implementation of electronic health records published by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology on December 30, 2009. 

In the comment letter, AHA asked ONC to

  • clarify the allocation of responsibilities of providers and IT vendors;
  • provide a lead time of one year between finalization of the certification criteria and certification of vendor systems and an additional two years between the time when certified products are available in the market and when providers nationwide are expected to implement and begin using them;
  • streamline the certification process;
  • recognize that hospitals may customize and make modifications to EHR technology that was certified by a vendor without needing additional certifications; and
  • delay  the certification criteria and standard for the accounting of disclosures at least until the updated rule for accounting of disclosures is issued by the HHS Secretary.

They also asked ONC to expressly clarify that the encryption and hashing standards contained within the IFR do not impose any obligations upon HIPAA-covered entities beyond that which is already required by the HIPAA Security Rule, and asked that the audit alerting criterion be eliminated from the final rule.

The devil is in the definition, as least when it comes to getting financial incentive payments for the adoption of electronic health records (EHR). The American Hospital Association (AHA) recently asked the White House Office of Health Reform, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to revise the definition of "hospital-based" so that physicians working in hospital outpatient clinics or hospital-based facilities can receive incentive payments from Medicare and Medicaid under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA).

In many ways, AHA’s request makes sense. If ARRA is to incentivize "meaningful use" of EHR, it should not exclude physician users practicing in off-site clinic or outpatient locations — these are often the very physicians whose implementation and use of EHR is key to the creation of a community-wide EHR infrastructure. In other ways, though, AHA’s request is a vexing reminder of the mental contortions required to maintain the old meanings and purposes of terms while introducing new ones.

Whether an outpatient or "provider-based" clinic qualifies as part of the hospital for reimbursement purposes varies from state to state and from payer to payer. AHA’s request to expand the definition for purposes of ARRA incentive payments seems to make sense from an EHR-policy implementation perspective, but folding in yet another "hospital-based" definition for ARRA purposes challenges the conceptual integrity of the word — and starts to make my head spin.

The AHA letter is available at http://www.aha.org/aha/letter/2009/091204-let-hit-arra.pdf.