Widespread media coverage of this week’s Las Vegas, Nevada mass shooting (Las Vegas Shooting), and recent Hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico shows the barrage of requests for patient information from emergency and disaster response personnel, concerned family and friends, the media or others about the identity, status and other circumstances of patients and other individuals that health care providers caring for patients following a mass disaster or other emergency.
The tight restrictions and potentially stiff penalties authorized under the Health Insurance Portability And Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy and Security Rule (Privacy Rule) on health care providers, health plans, and health care clearinghouses (Covered Entities) for improperly disclosing information about identifiable patients under the Privacy Rule necessitate that health care providers and other Covered Persons exercise great care to ensure that statements and other disclosures of identifiable patient information either are authorized in writing in accordance with HIPAA or otherwise specifically allowed under the Privacy Rule. See, e.g., $2.4M HIPAA Settlement Warns Providers About Media Disclosures Of PHI; $2.4M HIPAA Settlement Message Warns Health Plans & Providers Against Sharing Medical Info With Media, Others; $2 Million+ HIPAA Settlement, FAQ Warn Providers Protect PHI From Media, Other Recording Or Use.
Following the Las Vegas Shooting, the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) on October 3, 2017 issued an announcement on “Disclosures to Family, Friends, and Others Involved in an Individual’s Care and for Notification” (Announcement) intended to clarify certain limited situations when OCR interprets the Privacy Rule as allowing Covered Entities to disclose PHI to individuals involved in the patient’s care, the media or other parties not involved in the patient’s care for notification purposes without prior patient authorization. Health care providers and other Covered Entities should review and update their existing Privacy Rule policies, practices and training in response to this and other evolving guidance to help prepare their teams appropriately to respond to family, media and other inquiries about patients in emergency and other circumstances.
Privacy Rule Generally
While mass shooting events like the Las Vegas Shooting, recent hurricanes, Ebola or other contagious disease outbreak and other mass injury or illness events garner widespread media and public attention, health care providers and other Covered Entities also regularly field requests for PHI about current or former patients from family and others involved in patients’ care or treatment, law enforcement, law enforcement, and the media or other members of the general public not involved in patient care.
The Privacy Rule generally requires Covered Entities to keep confidential, and prohibits Covered Entities from disclosing individually identifiable health care information about a patient that qualifies as “protected health information” or “PHI” without first obtaining a HIPAA-compliant authorization unless the disclosure meets all the requirements to fall under an exception defined in the Privacy Rule.
Since HIPAA’s broad definition of PHI encompasses even the name, identity and even existence of a patient, as well as more specific information about the current or past health condition and treatment of a patient, health care providers and other Covered Entities must prepare and train their staff to be prepared appropriately to comply with the Privacy Rules even when considering disclosing PHI to identify an incapacitated patient, notify or respond to inquiries of family or others involved in caring for patient during an emergency or disaster.
As OCR guidance consistently reaffirms, the Privacy Rule’s general prohibition against PHI without prior patient authorization and other requirements generally still apply during public health or other emergencies. While Social Security Act § 1135(b)(7) allows HHS temporarily to waive sanctions and penalties for violations of some, but not all Privacy Rule requirements by a covered hospitals operating under disaster protocols during periods the President declares an emergency or disaster and the HHS Secretary declares a public health emergency as in response to Hurricanes Katrina,Harvey, Irma, and Maria, this relief is rarely applicable, and limited in scope, applicability and duration. Consequently, Covered Entities still need to ensure that any contemplated disclosure is either authorized or meets all requirements the Privacy Rule requires to fall under an exemption to its general prohibition against unauthorized disclosure to avoid becoming subject to civil or even criminal sanctions under the Privacy Rule even when responding to inquiries during mass disaster, public health emergency or other exigent circumstances.
As discussed in November 2016 OCR Bulletin On HIPAA Privacy in Emergency Situations, the Privacy Rule includes various exceptions that may allow a health care provider or other Covered Entity to disclose the PHI of a patient involved in a public health or other emergency without patient authorization including:
- PHI about the patient necessary to treat the patient or to treat a different patient including 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;
- To a public health authority, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or a state or local health department, authorized by law to collect or receive such information for the purpose of preventing or controlling disease, injury or disability. See 45 CFR §§ 164.501 and 164.512(b)(1)(i);
- As necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health and safety of a person or the public when 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);
- To a patient’s family members, relatives, friends, or other persons identified by the patient as involved in the patient’s care or 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 provided that the Covered Entity gets at least verbal permission from individuals or otherwise be able to reasonably infer that the patient does not object, when possible; or if the individual is incapacitated or not available, in the Covered Entity’s professional judgment, doing so is in the patient’s best interest. See 45 CFR 164.510(b);
- With disaster relief organizations that, like the American Red Cross, are authorized by law or by their charters to assist in disaster relief efforts, 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 without authorization if doing so would interfere with the organization’s ability to respond to the emergency; or
- 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) to the media or others not involved in the care of the patient upon request for information about a particular patient by name, 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).
See also Compliance Guidance and Enforcement Statement.
Announcement Clarifies Privacy Rules For Disclosures To Individuals Involved In Patient’s Care; For Notification; And To Media Or Others Not Involved In Patient Care
The new OCR Announcement provides clarification of the applicability of the Privacy Rule exemptions regarding disclosures of PHI by health care providers or other Covered Entities:
- To individuals involved in the patient’s care or for notification purposes; or
- To media or other individuals not involved in the patient’s care.
In addition, the Announcement also reminds Covered Entities:
- Of their responsibility to limit disclosures made without HIPAA-compliant patient authorization other than for treatment purposes to the minimum necessary,
- That the Privacy Rule allows Covered Entities to rely upon certifications that information requested by public health authorities or officials that the information requested is the minimum necessary; and
- To continue to enforce role-based restrictions on PHI.
- Disclosures to Family, Friends, Disaster Relief Responders and Others Involved in an Individual’s Care and for Notification
Privacy Rule §164.510(b) permits a Covered Entity to share PHI:
- 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. This may include, where necessary to notify family members and others, the police, the press, or the public at large. See Privacy Rule § 164.510(b).
When making such disclosures, the Announcement states a Covered Entity should get verbal permission from individuals or otherwise be able to reasonably infer that the patient does not object, when possible.
Concerning patients who are unconscious or incapacitated, the OCR guidance also states that a health care provider may share relevant information about the patient with family, friends, or others involved in the patient’s care or payment for care, if the health care provider in its professional judgement determines that doing so is in the best interests of the patient.
In addition, OCR says Covered Entities also may share PHI with disaster relief organizations that, like the American Red Cross, are authorized by law or by their charters to assist in disaster relief efforts, 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. When disclosing PHI to disaster relief organizations, the Announcement states 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.
- Disclosures to the Media or Others Not Involved in the Care of the Patient/Notification
As the Las Vegas Shooting illustrates, health care providers and other Covered Entities caring for patients during public health or other emergency situations often must deal with news or other media crews on or around treatment or other health care facilities and media and inquiries from the media or others about the identity, status or other PHI of patients. OCR’s past imposition of stiff penalties against other Covered Entities for improperly disclosing patient PHI to the media or the public without authorization alert Covered Entities of HIPAA risks of failing to properly control access and disclosures of PHI to the media or other general public without obtaining prior written authorization from patients or their personal representatives. See e.g., $2.4M HIPAA Settlement Warns Providers About Media Disclosures Of PHI. See also HIPAA Sanctions Triggered From Covered Entity Statements To Media, Workforce.
Previously issued OCR guidance makes clear that health care providers and other Covered Entities risk sanction both from allowing media or other members of the public inappropriate access to patient treatment or other areas with unsecured PHI as well as media statements and other disclosures of PHI to the media or public without first obtaining a HIPAA-compliant authorization except under narrow circumstances specified in the Privacy Rule.. See 45 CFR 164.510(a). OCR FAQ on Disclosures to the Media, for instance, states:
“the HIPAA Privacy Rule does not permit health care providers to disclose PHI to media personnel, including film crews, without having previously obtained a HIPAA-compliant authorization signed by the patient or his or her personal representative. In other words, health care providers may not allow members of the media, including film crews, into treatment areas of their facilities or other areas where PHI will be accessible in written, electronic, oral or other visual or audio form, without prior authorization from the patients who are or will be in the area or whose PHI will be accessible to the media. It is not sufficient for a health care provider to request or require media personnel to mask the identities of patients (using techniques such as blurring, pixilation, or voice alteration software) for whom an authorization was not obtained, because the HIPAA Privacy Rule does not allow media access to the patients’ PHI, absent an authorization, in the first place.
In addition, the health care provider must ensure that reasonable safeguards are in place to protect against impermissible disclosures or to limit incidental disclosures of other PHI that may be in the area but for which an authorization has not been obtained.
While emphasizing the Privacy Rule’s general requirement to secure advance authorization, OCR FAQ on Disclosures to the Media also recognizes the following “very limited situations” that the Privacy Rule permits a Covered Entity to disclose limited PHI to the media without obtaining a HIPAA authorization:
- A Covered Entity may disclose limited PHI about an unidentified incapacitated patient to the media seek to have the media help identify or locate the family of an unidentified and incapacitated patient in its care if, in the hospital’s professional judgment, doing so is in the patient’s best interest. See 45 C.F.R. 164.510(b)(1)(ii);
- A Covered Entity may disclose a patient’s location in the facility and condition in general terms that do not communicate specific medical information about the individual to any person, including the media, without obtaining a HIPAA authorization where the individual has not objected to his information being included in the facility directory, and the media representative or other person asks for the individual by name. See 45 C.F.R. 164.510(a);
- The HIPAA Privacy Rule does not require health care providers to prevent members of the media from entering areas of their facilities that are otherwise generally accessible to the public, which may include public waiting areas or areas where the public enters or exits the facility;
- A health care provider may utilize the services of a contract film crew to produce training videos or public relations materials on the provider’s behalf if certain protections are in place. If patients are to be identified by the provider and interviewed by a film crew, or if PHI might be accessible during filming or otherwise disclosed, the provider must enter into a HIPAA business associate agreement with the film crew acting as a business associate. Among other requirements, the business associate agreement must ensure that the film crew will safeguard the PHI it obtains, only use or disclose the PHI for the purposes provided in the agreement, and return or destroy any PHI after the work for the health care provider has been completed. See 45 C.F.R. 164.504(e)(2). As a business associate, the film crew must comply with the HIPAA Security Rule and a number of provisions in the Privacy Rule, including the Rule’s restrictions on the use and disclosure of PHI. In addition, authorizations from patients whose PHI is included in any materials would be required before such materials are posted online, printed in brochures for the public, or otherwise publicly disseminated; and
- Covered Entities can continue to inform the media of their treatment services and programs so that the media can better inform the public, provided that, in doing so, the Covered Entity does not share PHI with the media without the prior authorization of the individuals who are the subject of the PHI.
The Announcement reaffirms the general principles stated in this and other prior guidance concerning Covered Entities dealings with the media and public and clarifies its interpretation about what PHI, if any, the Privacy Rule allows hospitals and other health care providers about PHI may share in response to requests from the media or other individuals not involved in the care of a patient without first obtaining an authorization.
The Announcement reaffirms that 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) that complies with HIPAA’s authorization requirements. See 45 CFR 164.508.
The Announcement also clarifies, however, that Covered Entities that are hospitals or health care facilities that receive a request for information about a particular patient by name 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.
- Minimum Necessary Requirements & Other Privacy Rule Responsibility Reminders
The Announcement also cautions Covered Entities of the need to ensure beyond ensuring that a disclosure falls under a Privacy Rule exception, Covered Entities also need to ensure that other requirements of the Privacy Rule applicable to the disclosure also are met. In this respect, the Announcement cautions Covered Entities that the Privacy Rule requires they limit any otherwise permitted disclosure of PHI other than for treatment purposes made without obtaining a HIPAA-compliant patient authorization to the minimum necessary to achieve the allowed purpose, while also reminding Covered Entities that when making disclosures otherwise permitted to public health authorities or public officials, the Privacy Rule allows the Covered Entity to rely on representations from a public health authority or other public official that the requested information is the minimum necessary for the purpose.
Furthermore, the Announcement also warns Covered Entity that they should continue to apply their role-based access policies to limit access to PHI to only those workforce members who need it to carry out their duties. See Privacy Rules §§ 164.502(b), 164.514(d).
In addition to keeping in mind these Privacy Rule conditions, Covered Entities also need to take steps to ensure that their organizations and workforce also continue to follow all necessary procedures to ensure that their organizations can demonstrate continued compliance with other Privacy Rule requirements on verification, documentation and recordkeeping, accounting for disclosure, business associates and the like. In this regard, it is important that Covered Entities and their business associates take appropriate steps to ensure that their workforce carefully creates and retains the documentation and records needed to defend their actions as well as to respond to HHS requests and/or requests for accounting or disclosure that might arise in the future.
Required Action: Review & Update Emergency & Other Practices, Training In Response To Evolving Guidance
The Privacy Rules and other OCR guidance make clear that health care providers and other Covered Entities and their business associates are expected both to implement and maintain their practices, policies, workforce training and safeguards appropriately to control use, access and disclosure in emergency and other situations as well as to implement the necessary systems and safeguards to protect sensitive PHI, electronic PHI and associated records and system from improper access from the media or others and damage or destruction from disaster or other events.
In recognition that maintaining Privacy and Security Rule Compliance can prove challenging for Covered Entities and their business associates during emergency or other exigent events, OCR has published various other guidance it hopes will help Covered Entities and business associates prepare for and respond to these challenges including its Disclosure For Emergency Preparedness Decision Tool; and Public Health Authority Disclosure Request Checklist.
Covered Entities and their business associates should act promptly to review and update their policies, practices, safeguards and workforce training as needed in response to the new Announcement and other OCR guidance promptly.
About The Author
Repeatedly 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, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Council, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation and board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney, management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for health and managed care, employee benefits, insurance and financial services, data and technology and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications. Nationally recognized for her work, experience, leadership and publications on HIPAA and other medical privacy and data use and security, FACTA, GLB, trade secrets and other privacy and data security concerns, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively with clients and the government on cybersecurity, technology and processes and other issues involved in the use and management of medical, insurance and other financial, workforce, trade secrets and other sensitive data and information throughout her career. Scribe or co-scribe of the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Agency meeting with OCR since 2011, Ms. Stamer extensive experience, advising, representing, training and coaching health care providers, health plans, healthcare clearinghouses, business associates, their information technology and other solutions providers and vendors, and others on HIPAA and other privacy, data security and cybersecurity design, documentation, administration, audit and oversight, business associate and other data and technology contracting, breach investigation and response, and other related concerns including extensive involvement representing clients in dealings with OCR and other Health & Human Services, Federal Trade Commission, Department of Labor, Department of Treasury, state health, insurance and attorneys’ general, Congress and state legislators and other federal officials.
Ms. Stamer also has an extensive contributes her leadership and insights with other professionals, industry leaders and lawmakers. Her insights on HIPAA risk management and compliance often 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, SHRM, HIMMS, the American Bar Association, the Health Care Compliance Association, a multitude of 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. For additional information about Ms. Stamer, see here, e-mail her here or telephone Ms. Stamer at (214) 452-8297.
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 See e.g. OCR Bulletin: HIPAA Privacy in Emergency Situations (November 2014).
 Disclosing PHI in Emergency Situations; Compliance Guidance and Enforcement Statement.
 August 2017 Hurricane Harvey Bulletin.
 September 2017 Hurricane Irma Bulletin.
 September 2017 Hurricane Maria Bulletin
 The HIPAA Privacy Rule is not suspended during a public health or other emergency; however, Section 1135(b)(7) of the Social Security Act allows HHS to waive sanctions and penalties against a covered hospital that does not comply with the following provisions of the Privacy Rule events if the President declares an emergency or disaster and the Secretary declares a public health emergency:
- 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, it only applies: (1) in the emergency area and for the emergency
period identified in the public health emergency declaration; (2) to hospitals that have instituted a disaster protocol; and (3) 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. See also Social Security Act 1135(b)(7); Frequently Asked Question: HIPAA waiver during a national or public health emergency; OCR Bulletin: HIPAA Privacy in Emergency Situations (November 2014).