Ebola Scare & New OCR Privacy Guidance Reminder To Prepare For Pandemic & Other Emergencies


The recent US Ebola scare provided an important reminder to health care providers, health insurers and health plans, health care clearinghouses, employers and others of the importance of understanding and preparing to deal with health care privacy and other challenges arising from epidemics and other emergencies.  In response to the recent Ebola and other contagious disease outbreaks and just as U.S. health care and other business leaders are working to prepare for the biggest contagious disease time of the year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is reminding health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses (Covered Entities) and their business associates that the privacy rules of the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA) requiring Covered Entities and their business associates to limit the use, access and disclosure of patient’s protected health information (PHI) continue to apply during emergency situations and help them understand when HIPAA allows them to share PHI in emergency situations in a new notice titled “HIPAA Privacy in Emergency Situations” (Guidance) published November 10, 2014. A business associate of a covered entity (including a business associate that is a subcontractor) also must continue to comply with HIPAA and may only make disclosures permitted by the Privacy Rule on behalf of a Covered Entity or another business associate to the extent authorized by its business associate agreement and consistent with HIPAA’s requirements.  With annual flu season approaching and the Ebola and other pandemic issues still circling, it’s time for all organizations to prepare to respond to these and other emergencies including the special privacy and other concerns they often raise.

Sharing Patient Information

The Guidance begins by reminding Covered Entities and their business associates that HIPAA’s Privacy Rule continues to apply in emergency situations and requires Covered Entities protect and prohibits their use, access or disclosure of patient’s protected health information except as allowed by HIPAA unless the patient authorizes the Covered Entity to disclose the PHI in accordance with HIPAA’s requirements for authorization set forth in 45 CFR 164.508.

The Guidance then goes on to discuss the following circumstances that the HIPAA Privacy Rule might allow Covered Entities to share PHI without getting patient authorization, subject to the reminder that in many cases, HIPAA will require that the Covered Entity limit the disclosure to the minimum necessary disclosure necessary for the allowable purpose and require other conditions to be fulfilled:

  • Treatment.

Under the Privacy Rule, covered entities may disclose, without a patient’s authorization, protected health information about the patient as necessary to treat the patient or to treat a different patient. Treatment includes the coordination or management of health care and related services by one or more health care providers and others, consultation between providers, and the referral of patients for treatment. See 45 CFR §§ 164.502(a)(1)(ii), 164.506(c), and the definition of “treatment” at 164.501.

  • Public Health Activities.

The HIPAA Privacy Rule recognizes the legitimate need for public health authorities and others responsible for ensuring public health and safety to have access to protected health information that is necessary to carry out their public health mission. Therefore, the Privacy Rule permits covered entities to disclose needed protected health information without individual authorization:

  • To Or At The Direction Of A Public Health Authority.

The HIPAA Privacy Rule allows Covered Entities to share protected health information with Public Health Authorities authorized by law to collect or receive such information for the purpose of preventing or controlling disease, injury or disability like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or a state or local health department. This would include, for example, the reporting of disease or injury; reporting vital events, such as births or deaths; and conducting public health surveillance, investigations, or interventions. A “public health authority” is an agency or authority of the United States government, a State, a territory, a political subdivision of a State or territory, or Indian tribe that is responsible for public health matters as part of its official mandate, as well as a person or entity acting under a grant of authority from, or under a contract with, a public health agency. See 45 CFR §§ 164.501 and 164.512(b)(1)(i). For example, a covered entity may disclose to the CDC protected health information on an ongoing basis as needed to report all prior and prospective cases of patients exposed to or suspected or confirmed to have Ebola virus disease.

The HIPAA Privacy Rule also allows Covered Entities to share information at the direction of a public health authority:

    • To a foreign government agency that is acting in collaboration with the public health authority. See 45 CFR 164.512(b)(1)(i); and
    • To persons at risk of contracting or spreading a disease or condition if other law, such as state law, authorizes the covered entity to notify such persons as necessary to prevent or control the spread of the disease or otherwise to carry out public health interventions or investigations. See 45 CFR 164.512(b)(1)(iv)
  • Disclosures to Family, Friends, and Others Involved in an Individual’s Care and for Notification.

The HIPAA Privacy Rule allows a Covered Entity to share protected health information:

    • With a patient’s family members, relatives, friends, or other persons identified by the patient as involved in the patient’s care;
    • About a patient as necessary to identify, locate, and notify family members, guardians, or anyone else responsible for the patient’s care, of the patient’s location, general condition, or death including where necessary to notify family members and others, the police, the press, or the public at large. See 45 CFR 164.510(b).

The Guidance reminds Covered Entities, however, that the Privacy Rule requires the Covered Entity to get verbal permission from individuals or otherwise be able to reasonably infer that the patient does not object, when possible. If the individual is incapacitated or not available, the Guidance states Covered Entities may share information for these purposes if, in their professional judgment, doing so is in the patient’s best interest.

The Guidance also confirms that Covered Entities may share protected health information with disaster relief organizations authorized by law or by their charters to assist in disaster relief efforts like the American Red Cross for the purpose of coordinating the notification of family members or other persons involved in the patient’s care, of the patient’s location, general condition, or death. It is unnecessary to obtain a patient’s permission to share the information in this situation if doing so would interfere with the organization’s ability to respond to the emergency.

  • Imminent Danger

The Guidance also states that Covered Entities that are health care providers may share patient information with anyone as necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health and safety of a person or the public – consistent with applicable law (such as state statutes, regulations, or case law) and the provider’s standards of ethical conduct. See 45 CFR 164.512(j).

  • Disclosures to the Media & Others Not Involved in the Care of the Patient/Notification

The Guidance also reminds Covered Entities of the importance of closely adhering to HIPAA’s rules when responding to information requests from the medial or others not involved in the care of a patient. The Guidance states that when the media or other other party not involved un the patient’s care asks the Covered Entity for information about a particular patient by name, a hospital or other health care facility may release limited facility directory information to acknowledge an individual is a patient at the facility and provide basic information about the patient’s condition in general terms (e.g., critical or stable, deceased, or treated and released) if the patient has not objected to or restricted the release of such information or, if the patient is incapacitated, if the disclosure is believed to be in the best interest of the patient and is consistent with any prior expressed preferences of the patient. See 45 CFR 164.510(a). In general, except in the limited circumstances authorized in the HIPAA Privacy Rule, affirmative reporting to the media or the public at large about an identifiable patient, or the disclosure to the public or media of specific information about treatment of an identifiable patient, such as specific tests, test results or details of a patient’s illness, may not be done without the patient’s written authorization (or the written authorization of a personal representative who is a person legally authorized to make health care decisions for the patient).

  • Minimum Necessary Restriction Requirement

The Guidance cautions Covered Entities and their business associates that for most disclosures, a Covered Entity generally must make reasonable efforts to limit the information disclosed to that which is the “minimum necessary” to accomplish the purpose. However, this minimum necessary requirement does not apply to disclosures to health care providers for treatment purposes.

Covered Entities may rely on representations from a public health authority or other public official that the requested information is the minimum necessary when making disclosures in response to request from those parties. For example, a covered entity may rely on representations from the CDC that the protected health information requested by the CDC about all patients exposed to or suspected or confirmed to have Ebola virus disease is the minimum necessary for the public health purpose.

  • Required Internal Restrictions On Use, Access & Disclosure

Internally, covered entities should continue to apply their role-based access policies to limit access to protected health information to only those workforce members who need it to carry out their duties. See 45 CFR §§ 164.502(b), 164.514(d).

Safeguarding Patient Information

Beyond limiting the use, access and disclosure of PHI, the Guidance also reminds Covered Entities and their business associates that even in emergency situations, HIPAA continues to require them to implement reasonable safeguards to protect patient information against intentional or unintentional impermissible uses and disclosures as well as to apply the administrative, physical, and technical safeguards of the HIPAA Security Rule to electronic PHI.

Limited Waiver

Although HHS has yet to take steps to trigger a limited waiver, the Guidance also reminds Covered Entities and their business associates that HHS has the power to do so, the effect of a limited waiver and the circumstances under which HHS could elect to apply  a limited waiver to waive sanctions against a hospital for certain specific types of HIPAA violations while the waiver is in effect.

As the Guidance notes, the HIPAA Privacy Rule is not suspended during a public health or other emergency.  Rather, the limited waiver rules only operates to permit the Secretary of HHS to waive certain provisions of the Privacy Rule under the Project Bioshield Act of 2004 (PL 108-276) and section 1135(b)(7) of the Social Security Act. The limited waiver only applies when the President declares an emergency or disaster and HHS declares a public health emergency. When and if these requirements are met, HHS may waive sanctions and penalties against a Covered Entity that is a hospital for failing to comply with the following HIPAA Privacy Rule provisions:

  • The requirements to obtain a patient’s agreement to speak with family members or friends involved in the patient’s care. See 45 CFR 164.510(b).
  • The requirement to honor a request to opt out of the facility directory. See 45 CFR 164.510(a).
  • The requirement to distribute a notice of privacy practices. See 45 CFR 164.520.
  • The patient’s right to request privacy restrictions. See 45 CFR 164.522(a).
  • The patient’s right to request confidential communications. See 45 CFR 164.522(b).

If the Secretary issues such a waiver, Covered Entities and their business associates should keep in mind the waiver only applies to the list violations and only applies:

  • For so long as the waiver remains in effect;
  • In the emergency area and for the emergency period identified in the public health emergency declaration
  • To hospitals that have instituted a disaster protocol; and
  • For up to 72 hours from the time the hospital implements its disaster protocol.

When the Presidential or Secretarial declaration terminates, a hospital must then comply with all the requirements of the Privacy Rule for any patient still under its care, even if 72 hours has not elapsed since implementation of its disaster protocol.

Not Necessarily Just About HIPAA

HIPAA is not necessarily the only law that Covered Entities, business associates or others need to consider when deciding what to disclose during an emergency or otherwise.  The HIPAA Privacy Rule applies to disclosures made by and Covered Entities, business associates employees, volunteers, and other members of a Covered Entity’s or Business Associate’s workforce. The Privacy Rule does not apply to disclosures made by entities or other persons who are not Covered Entities.

Beyond HIPAA, Covered Entities, their business associates or members of their workforce, employers, and other organizations also need to consider whether other federal or state laws, ethical rules, contracts or policies may restrict use or disclosure, safeguard, or take other steps to protect PHI or other information.  For instance, other federal laws, state law, professional ethical rules, contracts, facility policies or procedures, or other restrictions often apply to health care provides, insurers, brokers, employers or others.  Employers, health care organizations, insurers and others also need to be concerned about potential discrimination, common law and statutory privacy, retaliation, defamation and other exposures.

Prepare For Compliance Now

The recent experiences of various health care organizations intimately involved in caring for the Ebola patients highlights the importance of anticipating, preparing and conducting training, and having your workforce practice to prepare  to deal with the special challenges of dealing with HIPAA and other legal responsibilities in advance of emergency events.  When preparing for these events, Covered Entities and business associates need to take into account the need to comply operationally as well as to document and retain records of compliance.   They should  both should anticipate and prepare to respond to both typical inquiries as well as those from the media, public and others.   They also should consider how various types of emergencies could create new privacy or security risks.  For instance, in certain emergency situations, recordkeeping or other systems could be disrupted, impacting the ability retain and subsequently produce required documentation.  Furthermore, Covered Entities also should prepare to manage the patient and public relations aspects of these events including adverse impressions that often arise when the media or others are disappointed at being denied information because of compliance obligations, from breaches or perceived breaches, or other similar events.

For Representation, Training & Other Resources

If you need assistance monitoring HIPAA and other health and health plan related regulatory policy or enforcement developments, or to review or respond to these or other health care or health IT related risk management, compliance, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer may be able to help.

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law, Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefit & Other Compensation Arrangements Group, Co-Chair and Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Welfare Plan Committee, Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Plans Committee, Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer has more than 26 years experience advising health plan and employee benefit, insurance, financial services, employer and health industry clients about these and other matters. Ms. Stamer has extensive experience advising and assisting health care providers, health plans, their business associates and other health industry clients to establish and administer medical privacy and other compliance and risk management policies, to health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns. She regularly designs and presents HIPAA and other risk management, compliance and other training for health plans, employers, health care providers, professional associations and others.

Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer has more than 26 years experience advising health industry, insurance, technology and other clients to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; prevent, conduct and investigate, and respond to peer review and other quality concerns; and to respond to OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, DOL, IRS, SEC, insurance department and other investigation and enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns.  The scribe for the American Bar Association (ABA) Joint Committee on Employee Benefits annual agency meeting with the Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights,  Ms. Stamer has worked extensively with health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses, their business associates, employers, banks and other financial institutions, and others on risk management and compliance with HIPAA and other information privacy and data security rules, investigating and responding to known or suspected breaches, defending investigations or other actions by plaintiffs, OCR and other federal or state agencies, reporting known or suspected violations, business associate and other contracting, commenting or obtaining other clarification of guidance, training and enforcement, and a host of other related concerns.  Her clients include public and private health care providers, health insurers, health plans, technology and other vendors, and others.  In addition to representing and advising these organizations, she also has conducted training on Privacy & The Pandemic for the Association of State & Territorial Health Plans,  as well as  HIPAA, FACTA, PCI, medical confidentiality, insurance confidentiality and other privacy and data security compliance and risk management for  Los Angeles County Health Department, ISSA, HIMMS, the ABA, SHRM, schools, medical societies, government and private health care and health plan organizations, their business associates, trade associations and others.

For the past four years, Ms. Stamer has served as the  scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits agency meeting with OCR.   Ms. Stamer also regularly works with OCR, FTC, USSS, FBI and state and local law enforcement on privacy, data security, health care, benefits and insurance and other matters, publishes and speaks extensively on medical and other privacy and data security, health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns. Her publications and insights appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications. For instance, Ms. Stamer for the second year will serve as the appointed scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Agency meeting with OCR. Her insights on HIPAA risk management and compliance frequently appear in medical privacy related publications of a broad range of health care, health plan and other industry publications Among others, she has conducted privacy training for the Association of State & Territorial Health Plans (ASTHO), the Los Angeles Health Department, the American Bar Association, the Health Care Compliance Association, a multitude of health industry, health plan, insurance and financial services, education, employer employee benefit and other clients, trade and professional associations and others.  You can get more information about her HIPAA and other experience here.

If you need assistance with these or other compliance concerns, wish to inquire about arranging for compliance audit or training, or need legal representation on other matters please contact Ms. Stamer at (469) 767-8872 or via e-mail here.

You can review other recent publications and resources and additional information about the other experience of Ms. Stamer here. Examples of some recent publications that may be of interest include:

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information including your preferred e-mail by creating or updating your profile here. For important information concerning this communication click here.

©2014 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.   All rights reserved.

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