Health plans must deliver electronic protected health information (“ePHI”) to electronic applications or software (“apps”) used by plan members, and are responsible under the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (“HIPAA”) Privacy and Security Rules for the security of electronic protected health information (“ePHI”) on apps they sponsor or provide, according to new guidance from the Department of Health & Human Services (“HHS”) Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”).
With health plans and their sponsors and insurers increasingly offering or promoting the use of apps to plan members members to access, maintain and use their health information, health plans, health care providers, health care clearinghouses and their business associates (“covered entities”) covered by HIPAA must understand and be prepared meet their HIPAA responsibilities to provide and protect ePHI to and on these apps, but may want to rethink sponsoring or providing a particular app for that purpose.
New HIPAA FAQ guidance (the “FAQs”) from OCR that addresses the implications of HIPAA on covered entities responsibility when asked to share or for ePHI shared or stored on apps or application programming interfaces (“APIs”) systems, covered entities have a legal obligation to disclose ePHI to an app when subjects of the ePHI or their personal representatives request such disclosures. However, the FAQs also state a covered entity or its business associates won’t be responsible for the security of the data shared to the app unless it sponsors or provides it.
pends upon whether the AP or API interface provider is a business associate of the covered entity versus just a third-party provider whose involvement and receipt of the PHI is requested and arranged by the subject of the PHI.
Covered Entities Obligated To Disclose ePHI to Apps Chosen By Individuals
The FAQs make crystal clear that covered entities do not have the option of refusing to share ePHI to an app when requested to do so by the subject of the ePHI or its personal representative. The FAQs states that covered entities cannot refuse to disclose ePHI to an app chosen by an individual because of concerns about how the app will use or disclose the ePHI it receives. In this regard, the FAQs state that the HIPAA Privacy Rule generally prohibits a covered entity from refusing to disclose ePHI to a third-party app designated by the individual if the ePHI is readily producible in the form and format used by the app. See 45 CFR 164.524(a)(1), (c)(2)(ii), (c)(3)(ii).According to the FAQ, the HIPAA Rules do not impose any restrictions on how an individual or the individual’s designee, such as an app, may use the health information that has been disclosed pursuant to the individual’s right of access. For instance, a covered entity is not permitted to deny an individual’s right of access to their ePHI where the individual directs the information to a third-party app because the app will share the individual’s ePHI for research or because the app does not encrypt the individual’s data when at rest.According to the FAQs, the liability a covered entity or business associate bears for sharing ePHI to an App under the HIPAA Privacy, Security, or Breach Notification Rules (HIPAA Rules) depends on the relationship between the covered entity and the app.
Breaches of Health Information Disclosed To An App
If an app that is neither a covered entity nor a business associate of the covered entity under HIPAA receives ePHI at the request of the subject or its personal representative, the FAQ states that the shared ePHI is no longer subject to the protections of the HIPAA Rules. Thus if the individual’s app – chosen by an individual to receive the individual’s requested ePHI – was not provided by or on behalf of the covered entity (and, thus, does not create, receive, transmit, or maintain ePHI on its behalf), the covered entity would not be liable under the HIPAA Rules for any subsequent use or disclosure of the requested ePHI received by the app. For example, the covered entity would have no HIPAA responsibilities or liability if such an app that the individual designated to receive their ePHI later experiences a breach. See also, See also OCR FAQ 2039, “What is the liability of a covered entity in responding to an individual’s access request to send the individual’s PHI to a third party.In contrast, however, the FAQ states that if the app was developed for, or provided by or on behalf of the covered entity – and, thus, creates, receives, maintains, or transmits ePHI on behalf of the covered entity – the covered entity could be liable under the HIPAA Rules for a subsequent impermissible disclosure because of the business associate relationship between the covered entity and the app developer. For example, if the individual selects an app that the covered health care provider uses to provide services to individuals involving ePHI, the FAQs state that the health care provider may be subject to liability under the HIPAA Rules if the app impermissibly discloses the ePHI received.
Transmission of ePHI to App Using Unsecured Method
The FAQs also address the potential exposures of covered entities and their business associates arising from the transmission of ePHI to an App using an unsecure method. According to the FAQs, the access rights HIPAA guarantees to individuals allows an individual to request that a covered entity to direct their ePHI to a third-party app in an unsecure manner or through an unsecure channel. See 45 CFR 164.524(a)(1), (c)(2)(ii), (c)(3)(ii). For instance, an individual may request that their unencrypted ePHI be transmitted to an app as a matter of convenience. The FAQ states that a covered entity that transmits ePHI through an unsecured means under such circumstances would not be responsible for unauthorized access to the individual’s ePHI while in transmission to the app. With respect to such apps, however, the FAQs also suggest that the covered entity may want to consider informing the individual of the potential risks involved the first time that the individual makes the request.
Post Transmission Exposure of Covered Entity’s EHR Systems Developer
The FAQ also discusses the potential exposure of a covered entity’s electronic health record (EHR) system developer under HIPAA after completing the transmission on behalf of a covered entity of ePHI to an app designated by the subject of the ePHI. According to the FAQs, the exposure of the HER system developer depends on the relationship, if any, between the covered entity, the EHR system developer, and the app chosen by the individual to receive the individual’s ePHI. A business associate relationship exists if an entity creates, receives, maintains, or transmits ePHI on behalf of a covered entity (directly or through another business associate) to carry out the covered functions of the covered entity. A business associate relationship exists between an EHR system developer and a covered entity. If the EHR system developer does not own the app, or if it owns the app but does not provide the app to, through, or on behalf of, the covered entity – e.g., if it creates the app and makes it available in an app store as part of a different line of business (and not as part of its business associate relationship with any covered entity) – the EHR system developer would not be liable under the HIPAA Rules for any subsequent use or disclosure of the requested ePHI received by the app.If the EHR system developer owns the app or has a business associate relationship with the app developer, and provides the app to, through or on behalf of, the covered entity (directly or through another business associate), however, the FAQs state the EHR system developer then potentially could face HIPAA liability (as a business associate of a HIPAA covered entity) for any impermissible uses and disclosures of the health information received by the app. For example, if an EHR system developer contracts with the app developer to create the app on behalf of a covered entity and the individual later identifies that app to receive ePHI, then the EHR system developer could be subject to HIPAA liability if the app impermissibly uses or discloses the ePHI received.
Covered Entity’s Duty To Enter Into Business Associate Agreement Depends Upon Relationship
Health Plan & Other Covered Entity Take Aways
The new FAQ raises several action items for health plans, their sponsoring employers or unions, fiduciaries, administrators, brokers and insurers as well as other covered entities. Among other things, health plans and other covered entities must recognize and be prepared currently to provide PHI to subjects of that information on the apps of the requesting individual’s preference within the time frames dictated by HIPAA. Health plans and other covered entities need to recognize that the FAQs reflect this is a current, not future responsibility.
Second, health plans, health care providers and others that have or are considering providing apps or other tools to health plan members or patients for use in accessing or using PHI also generally need to recognize that the health plan or health care provider generally will bear responsibility under HIPAA for the adequacy of the security of the apps provided by or on behalf of the health plan or health care provider. Given the general responsibility to provide PHI to any apps designated by a subject of PHI, many health plans and health care providers may wish to reconsider whether providing or endorsing a particular app continues to make sense taking into account the HIPAA data privacy and security responsibilities and risks attendent to maintaining the security of PHI stored and accessed using those tools. Those electing to provide apps or other tools need to take steps to ensure the current and future adequacy of the data security of the app and its associated storage and other components including any future modifications to those tools.
Furthermore, health plans and other covered entities also should consider the advisability of revising existing notices and authorizations in response to the new FAQs. For instance, health plans, health care providers and others supplying PHI to an app designated by the requesting individual may want to consider revising forms to document the direction and consent of the requestor to the electronic delivery of the PHI to the designated app to better position themselves to claim the protection against liability for breaches on these subject designate apps described in the FAQs. Meanwhile, health plans or other covered entities providing apps also may wish to weigh options for supplementing disclosures to mitigate potential risks from use or failure to upgrade apps that might be viewed as covered entity provided or sponsored.
Certainly, before sponsoring or allowing a business associate to offer or provide an app or other similar solution, health care providers and other covered entities must ensure that the business associate agreement requirements of HIPAA are met from the app developer and others providing services or the app as business associates to the covered entity. Covered entities also should take steps to ensure that the interfaces between the apps and other systems are properly secured at the point of implementation and during any subsequent upgrades keeping in mind that OCR guidance expects covered entities to reconfirm security for any system, software or app upgrades. Meeting this expectation for apps within the possession of patients or plan members can present special challenges requiring careful planning.
Have questions about the new FAQs or other health care regulatory developments or their implications on your organization, contact the author. You also are invited to stay abreast of these and other health care developments by participating in our Solutions Law Press, Inc. Linkedin HR & Benefits Update LinkedIn Group or COPE: Coalition On Patient Empowerment Group or Project COPE: Coalition on Patient Empowerment Facebook Page.
About the Author
Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: Erisa & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years of health industry, health and other benefit and insurance, workforce and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications.
Highly valued for her rare ability to find pragmatic client-centric solutions by combining her detailed legal and operational knowledge and experience with her talent for creative problem-solving, Ms. Stamer’s clients include employers and other workforce management organizations; employer, union, association, government and other insured and self-insured health and other employee benefit plan sponsors, benefit plans, fiduciaries, administrators, and other plan vendors; managed care organizations, insurers, self-insured health plans and other payers and their management; public and private, domestic and international hospitals, health care systems, clinics, skilled nursing, long term care, rehabilitation and other health care providers and facilities; medical staff, health care accreditation, peer review and quality committees and organizations; managed care organizations, insurers, third party administrative services organizations and other payer organizations; billing, utilization management, management services organizations; group purchasing organizations; pharmaceutical, pharmacy, and prescription benefit management and organizations; claims, billing and other health care and insurance technology and data service organizations; other health, employee benefit, insurance and financial services product and solutions consultants, developers and vendors; and other health, employee benefit, insurance, technology, government and other management clients.
A former lead consultant to the Government of Bolivia on its Pension Privatization Project with extensive domestic and international public policy concerns in pensions, healthcare, workforce, immigration, tax, education and other areas, Ms. Stamer has been extensively involved in U.S. federal, state and local health care and other legislative and regulatory reform impacting these concerns throughout her career. Her public policy and regulatory affairs experience encompassess advising and representing domestic and multinational private sector health, insurance, employee benefit, employer, staffing and other outsourced service providers, and other clients in dealings with Congress, state legislatures, and federal, state and local regulators and government entities, as well as providing advice and input to U.S. and foreign government leaders on these and other policy concerns.
Beyond her public policy and regulatory affairs involvement, Ms. Stamer also has extensive experience helping these and other clients to design, implement, document, administer and defend workforce, employee benefit, insurance and risk management, health and safety, and other programs, products and solutions, and practices; establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; comply with requirements, investigate and respond to government; accreditation and quality organizations; private litigation and other federal and state health care industry investigations and enforcement actions; evaluate and influence legislative and regulatory reforms and other regulatory and public policy advocacy; training and discipline; enforcement, and a host of other related concerns. Ms. Stamer’s experience in these matters includes supporting these organizations and their leaders on both a real-time, “on demand” basis with crisis preparedness, intervention and response as well as consulting and representing clients on ongoing compliance and risk management; plan and program design; vendor and employee credentialing, selection, contracting, performance management and other dealings; strategic planning; policy, program, product and services development and innovation; mergers, acquisitions, and change management; workforce and operations management, and other opportunities and challenges arising in the course of their operations.
Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, heavily involved in health benefit, health care, health, financial and other information technology, data and related process and systems development, policy and operations throughout her career, and scribe of the ABA JCEB annual Office of Civil Rights agency meeting, Ms. Stamer also is widely recognized for her extensive work and leadership on leading edge health care and benefit policy and operational issues. She regularly helps employer and other health benefit plan sponsors and vendors, health industry, insurers, health IT, life sciences and other health and insurance industry clients design, document and enforce plans, practices, policies, systems and solutions; manage regulatory, contractual and other legal and operational compliance; vendors and suppliers; deal with Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, Medicare/Medicaid Advantage, ERISA, state insurance law and other private payer rules and requirements; contracting; licensing; terms of participation; medical billing, reimbursement, claims administration and coordination, and other provider-payer relations; reporting and disclosure, government investigations and enforcement, privacy and data security; and other compliance and enforcement; Form 990 and other nonprofit and tax-exemption; fundraising, investors, joint venture, and other business partners; quality and other performance measurement, management, discipline and reporting; physician and other workforce recruiting, performance management, peer review and other investigations and discipline, wage and hour, payroll, gain-sharing and other pay-for performance and other compensation, training, outsourcing and other human resources and workforce matters; board, medical staff and other governance; strategic planning, process and quality improvement; HIPAA administrative simplification, meaningful use, EMR, HIPAA and other technology, data security and breach and other health IT and data; STARK, antikickback, insurance, and other fraud prevention, investigation, defense and enforcement; audits, investigations, and enforcement actions; trade secrets and other intellectual property; crisis preparedness and response; internal, government and third-party licensure, credentialing, accreditation, HCQIA, HEDIS and other peer review and quality reporting, audits, investigations, enforcement and defense; patient relations and care; internal controls and regulatory compliance; payer-provider, provider-provider, vendor, patient, governmental and community relations; facilities, practice, products and other sales, mergers, acquisitions and other business and commercial transactions; government procurement and contracting; grants; tax-exemption and not-for-profit; 1557 and other Civil Rights; privacy and data security; training; risk and change management; regulatory affairs and public policy; process, product and service improvement, development and innovation, and other legal and operational compliance and risk management, government and regulatory affairs and operations concerns.
Ms. Stamer has extensive health care reimbursement and insurance experience advising and defending plan sponsors, administrators, insurance and managed care organizations, health care providers, payers, and others about Medicare, Medicaid, Medicare and Medicaid Advantage, Tri-Care, self-insured group, association, individual and employer and association group and other health benefit programs and coverages including but not limited to advising public and private payers about coverage and program design and documentation, advising and defending providers, payers and systems and billing services entities about systems and process design, audits, and other processes; provider credentialing, and contracting; providers and payer billing, reimbursement, claims audits, denials and appeals, coverage coordination, reporting, direct contracting, False Claims Act, Medicare & Medicaid, ERISA, state Prompt Pay, out-of-network and other nonpar insured, and other health care claims, prepayment, post-payment and other coverage, claims denials, appeals, billing and fraud investigations and actions and other reimbursement and payment related investigation, enforcement, litigation and actions. Scribe for the ABA JCEB annual agency meeting with HHS OCR, she also has worked extensively on health and health benefit coding, billing and claims, meaningful use and EMR, billing and reimbursement, quality measurement and reimbursement, HIPAA, FACTA, PCI, trade secret, physician and other medical, workforce, consumer financial and other data confidentiality and privacy, federal and state data security, data breach and mitigation, and other information privacy and data security concerns.
Author of leading works on a multitude of health care, health plan and other health industry matters, the American Bar Association (ABA) International Section Life Sciences Committee Vice Chair, a Scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) Annual OCR Agency Meeting, former Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, past ABA JCEB Council Representative and CLE and Marketing Committee Chair, past Board President of Richardson Development Center (now Warren Center) for Children Early Childhood Intervention Agency, past North Texas United Way Long Range Planning Committee Member, and past Board Member and Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer’s health industry clients include public health organizations; public and private hospitals, healthcare systems, clinics and other health care facilities; physicians, physician practices, medical staff, and other provider organizations; skilled nursing, long term care, assisted living, home health, ambulatory surgery, dialysis, telemedicine, DME, Pharma, clinics, and other health care providers; billing, management and other administrative services organizations; insured, self-insured, association and other health plans; PPOs, HMOs and other managed care organizations, insurance, claims administration, utilization management, and other health care payers; public and private peer review, quality assurance, accreditation and licensing; technology and other outsourcing; healthcare clearinghouse and other data; research; public and private social and community organizations; real estate, technology, clinical pathways, and other developers; investors, banks and financial institutions; audit, accounting, law firm; consulting; document management and recordkeeping, business associates, vendors, and service providers and other professional and other health industry organizations; academic medicine; trade associations; legislative and other law making bodies and others.
A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, privacy and data security, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns.
A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares her thought leadership, experience and advocacy on these and other related concerns by her service in the leadership of the Solutions Law Press, Inc. Coalition for Responsible Health Policy, its PROJECT COPE: Coalition on Patient Empowerment, and a broad range of other professional and civic organizations including North Texas Healthcare Compliance Association, a founding Board Member and past President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence, past Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; former Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children (now Warren Center For Children); current Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee, current Vice Chair of Policy for the Life Sciences Committee of the ABA International Section, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, a current Defined Contribution Plan Committee Co-Chair, former Group Chair and Co-Chair of the ABA RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, past Representative and chair of various committees of ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits; a ABA Health Law Coordinating Council representative, former Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division, past Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee, a former member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Benefits Association and others.
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