Proposed Privacy Rules Grant Health Plans New Flexibility, Add New Obligations

Health plans, health care providers, health insurers, health care clearinghouses (“Covered Entities”) and their business associates should budget and begin compliance plans, even as they comment on proposed changes to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule announced by the Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) in its December 10, 2020 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“Proposed Rule).  While the official Federal Register publication date has yet to be announced, OCR already is accepting comments pending the official publication. To assure consideration, comments must be received by OCR no later than 60 days from that official Federal Register publication date. 

More than 300 pages in length, the proposed HIPAA Privacy Rule changes include grant new flexibility to health plans and health care providers to share protected health information (“PHI”) for care integration and with family and other caregivers, while also imposing tighter requirements on Covered Entities for providing individuals access to PHI and other individual rights.  Through the proposed changes, OCR says it hopes to strengthen individuals’ rights to access their own electronic and other health information; improve information sharing for care coordination and case management for individuals; facilitate greater family and caregiver involvement in the care of individuals experiencing emergencies or health crises; enhance flexibilities for disclosures in the Opioid and COVID-19 public health emergencies or other emergency or threatening circumstances; and reduce administrative burdens on HIPAA covered health care providers and health plans. Highlights of some of the more significant proposed changes that the Proposed Rule will make if adopted as proposed include:

New Flexibility To Share PHI For Care Coordination and Case Management Activities

The Proposed Rule also would make a number of changes that OCR believes will remove the barriers created in the current Privacy Rule to Covered Entities, whether a health care provider or health plan, engaging in individual-level care coordination and case management activities.  Some of the key elements of these changes include the following:

  • Clarification of Rules For Individual-Level Care Coordination. The Proposed Rule would revise existing rules regarding sharing of information for individual-level care coordination to apply to Covered Entities involved in such coordination activities, whether or not the participating Covered Entity is participating in the actual care or treatment of the individual by:
    • Revising the definition of “health care operations” in the current version of the Privacy Rule to clarify that the Privacy Rule allows sharing of PHI for individual-level care coordination among Covered Entities whether or not the participating Covered Entity is one involved in treatment or non-treatment involved Covered Entities such as health plans;
    • Revises the current minimum necessary restriction on the disclosure of PHI for purposes of individual-level care coordination to treat all Covered Entities engaging in individual-based care coordination and case management activities the same, regardless of whether performing the activities under the “treatment” or “health care operations” functions as defined by HIPAA.  Currently non-treatment involved Covered Entities participating in care coordination and case management can only receive and share the minimum necessary PHI as their lack of involvement in treatment disqualifies them for reliance upon the treatment exception to the Privacy Rule’s general requirement to limit disclosures to the minimum necessary.
    • The Proposed Rule also would allow Covered Entities to disclose PHI to community-based organizations, home and community-based services (HCBS) providers, social services agencies, and other similar third parties providing health-related services for individual-level care coordination and case management without obtaining a valid authorization from the individual.

Individual Access Rights Expanded

The Proposed Rule includes a number of changes that if adopted as proposed, will increase significantly the burdens upon Covered Entities of complying with the individual access requirements of the Privacy Rule.  Among other things, these include the following:

  • Responding To Access Requests.  The Proposed Rule calls for:
  • Reducing the maximum period that Covered Entities have to respond to requests to “as soon as practicable,” but in no case later than 15 calendar days after receipt of the request” instead of current 30 calendar days; 
  • Clarifying the current requirement for Covered Entities to provide PHI in the form and format requested by the individual if “readily producible” in that form and format by providing that “readily producible” includes secure, standards-based APIs using applications chosen by the individuals, such as a “personal health application” and protect individual’s rights to take notes, videos, and photographs, or use other personal resources to view or capture PHI in person;
  • Requiring Covered Entities to allow individuals access to inspect or obtain copies of their own PHI Free of charge when inspecting in person or accessing PHI on the internet, but continue to permit certain fees for labor, supplies, and postage for certain other means of access in accordance with Privacy Rules parameters.  In acquiescence to the District Court’s January, 2020 holding that the prohibition against Covered Entities charging for third party copies in the current regulations exceeded its statutory authority in Ciox Health, LLC v. Azar, however the Proposed Rule would allow Covered Entities to charge limited fees to an individual directing transmission of an electronic copy of PHI to a third party under specified circumstances.  The Proposed Rule also would require Covered Entities to provide advance notice of estimated fee schedules on their websites (if they have one) for common types of requests for copies of PHI and, upon request, provide individualized estimates of fees for copies and an itemized list of actual costs for requests for copies. 
  • Right to Direct Copies to Third Parties.  The Proposed Rule will require  Covered Entities to transmit electronic PHI in an electronic health record to another Covered Entity as part of the individual’s access right.  In addition, also in response to the Coix Health, LLC ruling, the Proposed Rule will limit the current right of an individual to direct a copy of PHI to a third party to an electronic copy and will specify that third party direction request need not be in writing as long as it is “clear, conspicuous, and specific.”
  • Verification. The Proposed Rule also would prohibit a Covered Entity from imposing “unreasonable” identity verification measures on an individual, including notarization of requests, requiring the individual to provide proof of identity in person when remove verification would be practicable, or requiring the individual to complete a full HIPAA authorization form for an access request.

Disclosures to Family Members and Other Caretakers in Certain Situations

Continuing a trend that OCR has followed over the past several years in its other guidance, the Proposed Rule also would modify the Privacy Rule under specified conditions to facilitate if not encourage health care providers more broadly to disclose PHI to family members or other caretakers of individuals with substance use disorders (SUD) or serious mental illness (SMI) and in emergency situations with less concern about exposing themselves to liability under HIPAA.  The key elements of these changes are accomplished as follows:

  • The Proposed Rule would replace the current language that allows Covered Entities to make certain uses and disclosures of PHI based on their “exercise of professional judgment” with  language allowing disclosure based on a Covered Entity’s “good faith belief” that the use or disclosure is in the best interests of the individual and add a presumption of good faith by the health care provider for this purpose.
    • The Proposed Rule would enable Covered Entities to disclose PHI to avert a threat to the health or safety of a person or the public when a harm is “serious and reasonably foreseeable,” instead of the current stricter requirement that the Covered Entity see a “serious and imminent” threat to health or safety.

Clarification Regarding Disclosures to TRS Providers

The Proposed Rule also would amend the current Privacy Rules to remove  telephone relay service providers (“TRS providers”) from the definition of “business associates” and expressly to allow disclosures to TRS communications assistants for persons who are deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind, or who have a speech disability.

Required Updates To Notices of Privacy Practices

The Proposed Rule also would change the Privacy Rule Notice of Privacy Practices (“NPP”) requirements in a manner that would require most Covered Entities to update their NPPs and associated privacy policies. In the Proposed Rule, OCR proposes:

  • Replacing the requirement that certain Covered Entities that have a direct treatment relationship with an individual obtain, and retain copies of, written acknowledgements from that individual confirming their receipt of the NPP with a right for the individual to discuss the NPP with a designee of the Covered Entity.
    • Modification of the required NPP content to include an additional description and instruction as to how individuals can exercise their access rights and a new, more detailed and instructive, required header meeting new specifications about the information the NPP provides to individuals with respect to their rights, how to exercise them, and the availability of the Covered Entity’s designated contact person.

Act Now

HIPAA Covered Entities, business associates and other concerned or impacted persons immediately should begin evaluating the Proposed Rule as soon as possible.  As the current comment will end 60 days after the impending publication of the Proposed Rule in the Federal Register, concerned persons desiring a change to any provision of the Proposed Rule should prepare and submit appropriate comments to OCR in a timely fashion within the comment period.  In addition, all Covered Entities and their business associates should review the rule  in preparation for its provisions taking effect with a particular eye toward understanding the actions necessary to comply with the modified rules and to budget the financial and operational resources likely to be required to accomplish that compliance.

More Information

We hope this update is helpful. For more information about the these or other health or other legal, management or public policy developments, please contact the author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer via e-mail or via telephone at (214) 452 -8297.

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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 legal and operational management work, coaching, public policy and regulatory affairs leadership and advocacy, training and public speaking and publications. As a significant part of her work, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively domestically and internationally on an demand, special project and ongoing basis with health industry, health plan and insurance and other business, government and community organizations and their leaders, spoken and published extensively on HIPAA and other privacy and data security concerns, as well as other health care and health benefits;  human resources, employee benefits and other workforce and services; insurance; workers’ compensation and occupational disease; business reengineering, disaster and distress;  and many other management concerns.

Board Certified in Labor and Employment Law By the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Scribe for the ABA JCEB Annual Agency Meeting with OCR, Vice Chair of the ABA International Section Life Sciences Committee, and the ABA RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group and a former Council Representative, Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, former Vice President and Executive Director of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, 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, and a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer has extensive experience advising, representing, defending and training health care providers, health plans and insurers, employers, community organizations and others about HIPAA and other privacy concerns and has published and spoken extensively on these concerns.

Her involvement with HIPAA and other privacy and data concerns has taken place as part of her more than 30 years involvement working with public and private health industry, health insurance and other employers and organizations of all sizes, employee benefit plans, insurance and financial services, health industry and a broad range of public and private domestic and international business, community and government organizations and leaders on pandemic and other health and safety, workforce and performance preparedness, risks and change management, disaster preparedness and response and other operational and tactical concerns throughout her adult life. A former lead advisor to the Government of Bolivia on its pension  project, Ms. Stamer also has worked internationally and domestically as an advisor to business, community and government leaders on crisis preparedness and response, privacy and data security, workforce, health care and other policy and enforcement, as well as regularly advises and defends organizations about the design, administration and defense of their organizations workforce, employee benefit and compensation, safety, discipline and other management practices and actions.

Ms. Stamer also serves in leadership of a broad range of professional and civic organizations and shares insights and thought leadership through her extensive publications and public speaking. For more information about Ms. Stamer or her health industry and other experience and involvements, see or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

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