COVID-19 Telehealth Relief; CMS ESRD, General Practitioner Telehealth Toolkits Released

The U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act Privacy Rule 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) emergency enforcement relief for certain covered health care providers and their business associates participating in the operation of mobile, drive-through, or walk-up COVID-19 specimen collection and testing sites that only provide COVID-19 specimen collection or testing services to the public (Community-Based Testing Sites, or CBTS).  The Notification of Enforcement Discretion ON CBTS During The COVID-19 Nationwide Public Health Emergency (“Notice”) expands upon the series of HIPAA enforcement relief and other flexibility OCR has granted to health care providers and other HIPAA-covered entities and business associates when dealing with the COVID-19 National Health Emergency declared by President Trump on March 13, 2020.

While welcome relief for those health care providers and business associates that qualify for this relief, it is critical that all health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses and their business associates do not overlook the importance of ensuring their HIPAA obligations are fulfilled amid the frenzy of coping with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.  Like OCR’s previously announced March 30, 2020 Notification of Enforcement Discretion for Telehealth Remote Communications During the COVID-19 Nationwide Public Health Emergency (“Telehealth Relief”) and the COVID-19 related flexibilities granted by OCR in its February 2020 Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services BULLETIN: HIPAA Privacy and Novel Coronavirus (“OCR COVID-19 HIPAA Bulletin”), the CBTS Notice provides valuable flexibility and relief for HIPAA covered entities and business associates that qualify for the granted relief.  While welcoming this relief, all covered entities and business associates need to keep in mind that the shifting of care locations, systems, affiliations and other arrangements to deal with the COVID-19 national health emergency generally are accompanied by changes in the collection, use, access, disclosure, storage and transmission of protected health information generally and electronic protected health information and its associated devices and systems.  Except to the extent protected by COVID-19 or other specific disaster relief from OCR, covered entities and business associates need to use care to conduct appropriately documented risk assessments and take other necessary steps to maintain HIPAA compliance in these operations and systems throughout the emergency.  See also COVID-19 Telehealth Relief; CMS ESRD, General Practitioner Telehealth Toolkits Released;  OCR Grants HIPAA Telemedicine Relief During COVID-19 Crisis.

April 9 HIPAA Enforcement Relief For Certain COVID-19 Testing Related Activities

According to Director Roger Severino, the limited enforcement relief  in the Notice is intended  “to encourage the growth of mobile testing sites so more people can get tested quickly and safely.”  Under the April 9, 2020 Notice, OCR will not impose penalties for violations of HIPAA regulatory requirements committed by covered entities or business associates in connection with their good faith participation in the operation of COVID-19 testing sites during the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency.  The enforcement relief provided by the s retroactive to violations committed on or after March 13, 2020 even though just announced on April 9.

The enforcement relief applies to all HIPAA covered health care providers and their business associates when such entities are, in good faith, participating in the operation of a CBTS.   According to the Notice, operation of a CBTS includes all activities that support the collection of specimens from individuals for COVID-19 testing.  Covered entities and business associates intending to rely upon the enforcement relief need to understand its limited scope. The relief only applies to health care providers or their business associates when participating in CBTS related activities. It does not apply to non-CBTS related activities of health care providers  or their business associates including the handling of PHI outside of the operation of a CBTS or to health plans, health care clearinghouses, or their business associates performing health plan and clearinghouse functions. To the extent that an entity performs both plan and provider functions, the Notice says the relief only applies to the entity in its role as a covered health care provider and only to the extent that it participates in a CBTS.  Covered entities and business associates not covered by the CBTS relief provided by the Notice generally remain subject to all otherwise applicable HIPAA requirements except as otherwise provided in the Telehealth Relief or other COVID-19 related flexibilities granted by OCR in the OCR COVID-19 HIPAA Bulletin or other previously issued HIPAA guidance for dealing with public emergencies,

While committing that OCR will not take HIPAA enforcement action against covered entities or business associates for violating HIPAA’s regulatory requirements during the COVID-19 emergency, the Notice nevertheless encourages covered entities and business associates participating in the good faith operation of a CBTS to implement reasonable safeguards to protect the privacy and security of individuals’ PHI including:

  • Using and disclosing only the minimum PHI necessary except when disclosing PHI for treatment.
  • Setting up canopies or similar opaque barriers at a CBTS to provide some privacy to individuals during the collection of samples.
  • Controlling foot and car traffic to create adequate distancing at the point of service to minimize the ability of persons to see or overhear screening interactions at a CBTS. (A six foot distance would serve this purpose as well as supporting recommended social distancing measures to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19.)
  • Establishing a “buffer zone” to prevent members of the media or public from observing or filming individuals who approach a CBTS, and posting signs prohibiting filming.
  • Using secure technology at a CBTS to record and transmit electronic PHI.
  • Posting a Notice of Privacy Practices (NPP), or information about how to find the NPP online, if applicable, in a place that is readily viewable by individuals who approach a CBTS.

While OCR says the Notice’s enforcement relief for CBTS related activity is not conditional upon adherence to these recommendations, CBTS involved covered entities and business associations should keep in mind that the OCR relief does not necessarily affect their otherwise applicable requirements, if any, to comply to these and other health or medical privacy, data security, confidentiality or other similar requirements applicable under otherwise applicable state statutory or common laws, regulations, accreditation or credentialing, contractual or other legally relevant requirements or standards.

Today, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released two comprehensive toolkits on telehealth:

  • The Telehealth Toolkit for General Practitioners available here;
  • The End-Stage Renal Disease Providers Toolkit available here.

The Toolkits’ release follows up on last week’s Centers for Medicare & Medicare Services (“CMS”) loosening of requirements for Medicare coverage of telehealth services and privacy and data security requirements so that beneficiaries can receive a wider range of services from their doctors without having to travel to a healthcare facility on a temporary and emergency basis under the 1135 waiver authority and Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act.

COVID-19 Emergency TeleHealth Waivers & Rules

Under this temporary new waiver, Medicare can pay for office, hospital, and other visits furnished via telehealth across the country and including in patient’s places of residence starting March 6, 2020.  The waiver applies to a range of providers, such as doctors, nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists, and licensed clinical social workers, will be able to offer telehealth to their patients.

  • New TeleHealth Toolkits

Each of the telehealth toolkits released today contains electronic links to reliable sources of information on telehealth and telemedicine, which will reduce the amount of time providers spend searching for answers and increase their time with patients. HHS intends these links to help providers choose learn about the general concept of telehealth, choose telemedicine vendors, initiate a telemedicine program, monitor patients remotely, and develop documentation tools. Additionally, the information contained within each toolkit also outlines temporary virtual services that could be used to treat patients during this specific period of time.

  • COVID-19 Temporary Limited Scope HIPAA Privacy Telehealth Relief

The HHS COVID-19 emergency teleheath waivers follow up on the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) March 20, 2020 Notification of Enforcement Discretion on Telehealth Remote Communications (the “Notice”) announcing temporary, limited scope enforcement relief from some, but not all of the requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Privacy, Security and Breach Notification Rules for health care providers using “non-public facing” communication technologies to provide telemedicine services during the COVID-19 health care emergency

Intended to allow health care providers greater latitude under HIPAA to  communicate with patients and provide telehealth services through remote communications technologies during the COVID-19 national emergency, the Notice allows covered health care providers wishing to use audio or video communication technology to provide telehealth to patients during the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency the option to  any availabe “non-public facing” remote communication product to communicate with patients if the platform by verifying the platform is HIPAA compliant and securing the necessary business associate agreement (“BAA”) with the communication provider.

Specifically the Notice announces OCR is exercising its enforcement discretion  not to impose penalties for noncompliance with the HIPAA Rules in connection with the good faith provision of telehealth using non-public facing audio or video communication products during the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency in accordance with the requirements set forth in the Notice.  The non-enforcement policy applies to telehealth provided for any reason, regardless of whether the telehealth service is related to the diagnosis and treatment of health conditions related to COVID-19.   During the COVID-19 emergency, this relief for non-public facing remote communications allows a health care providers  the flexibility when it determines appropriate in his or her professional judgement to request to examine a patient using a video chat application connecting the provider’s or patient’s phone or desktop computer in order to assess a greater number of patients while limiting the risk of infection of other persons who would be exposed from an in-person consultation.

The relief does not apply to “public facing” remote communications however,  Facebook Live, Twitch, TikTok, and similar video communication applications are considered “public facing.”  The OCR bulletin states health care providers should not use any of these or other public facing remote communications to provide telehealth services under the Bulletin.

The Notice also alerts health care providers providing telemedicine services under the Notice need to ensure they have in place appropriate business associate agreements {“BAAs”) with each technology vendors used to conduct these communications and that the vendor is otherwise HIPAA compliant.  The Notice lists the following as some vendors that have represented to OCR that they provide HIPAA-compliant video communication products and that they will enter into a HIPAA BAA include:

  • Skype for Business
  • Updox
  • VSee
  • Zoom for Healthcare
  • me
  • Google G Suite Hangouts Meet

Providers should note that the Notice also states that OCR does not endorse, recommend or certify any of these vendors or the adequacy of their BAAs.  Consequently, providers intending to use any of thes platforms should conduct their own documented due diligence to confirm that the necessary HIPAA requirements are met.    Providers also should keep in mind that the OCR Notice does not modify any otherwise applicable federal or state law, contractual or ethical requirements that may apply to their use of these telemedicine platforms.  As many provider’s HIPAA notices may have included statements inconsistent with the use of these technologies, the provider should consider providing notification of the change of its practices that includes disclosures about potentially lower privacy protections.  Because the relief is limited in scope and duration, providers relying on the relief also will need to closely monitor developments and adjust practices as necessary when the emergency waivers expire or are modified.

Covered Entities & Business Associates Should Conduct Documented Risk Assessment To Verify Compliance Taking Into Account COVID-19 Operational Changes & Relief

Health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses and their business associates hoping to rely upon the relief in the CBTS Notice, the Telehealth Relief,  the OCR COVID-19 HIPAA Bulletin or other previously issued HIPAA guidance for dealing with public emergencies, need to verify their qualification and compliance with that guidance.  In the meantime, all HIPAA covered entities and business associates also should be cognizant of the advisability of also conducting timely, documented risk assessments and taking other necessary steps to ensure that they can demonstrate that their ongoing operations, taking into account any COVID-19 specific changes in operations, systems, locations, business associates or other HIPAA relevant arrangements or operations, comply with all remaining relevant requirements of HIPAA or other relevant federal or state statutory, regulatory, common law, ethical, contractual or other requirements. This is particularly important with respect to modification locations, equipment, or other COVID-19 related changes may impact or disrupt usual operations or involve the use, access, disclosure, retention or transmission of protected health information or other sensitive data outside of processes, systems or location previously subject to a risk assessment to confirm and document adequate compliance with HIPAA or other relevant requirements.  To the extent that any deficiencies may have occurred, timely action should be taken to conduct an appropriate documented investigation and risk assessment, and provide any necessary breach notification or other corrective action necessary to correct or mitigate those events.  Because of the potential sensitivity of these activities, health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses and their business associations should consider contacting experienced legal counsel to arrange for those activities to be structured to preserve the possibility of using attorney-client privilege or other legal privileges to help defend sensitive communications or evaluations against discovery in the event of a future litigation or administrative investigation.

More Information & Resources

We hope this update is helpful. If you need assistance reviewing or responding to these or other health care related risk management, compliance, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, may be able to help.  To learn more about Ms. Stamer, her services, experience, publications or involvements; to review or request other developments, publications, resources and tools; or to register for future updates, see www.cynthiastamer.com, see www.cynthiastamer.com; connect on LinkedIn or Facebook; or contact us via e-mail or via telephone at (214) 452 -8297

About The Author

Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney, management and regulatory affairs consultant, author and lecturer, who has worked extensively on pandemic and other crisis planning, preparedness and response and other business change, risk, compliance and operation management throughout her 30 plus year career.

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, and a Fellow in the American Bar Foundation, the Texas Bar Foundation and the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, Ms. Stamer is widely recognized for her pragmatic, leading edge work, scholarship and thought leadership on domestic and international, public and private sector health care and managed care, workforce and performance, safety, legal and operational compliance and risk management, crisis preparedness and response, and other essential legal and operational concerns.

Her experience includes extensive work domestically and internationally with hospitals, health care systems, clinics, skilled nursing and other long term care, rehabilitation and other health care facilities; physicians, medical staff and other health care providers and organizations; accreditation, peer review and quality committees and organizations;  health care management and technology and other health and managed care industry clients; self-insured and insured health and other employee benefit plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries, administrators, insurers and service providers and other payers; employers; billing, utilization management, quality, management services organizations, group purchasing organizations; pharmaceutical, pharmacy, and prescription benefit management and organizations; consultants; investors; EHR, claims, payroll and other technology, billing and reimbursement and other services and product vendors; products and solutions consultants and developers; investors; health industry advocacy and other service providers and groups and other health and managed care industry clients as well as federal and state legislative, regulatory, investigatory and enforcement bodies and agencies.

Board Certified in Labor and Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and the author of “Privacy and the Pandemic Workshop” for the Association of State and Territorial Health Plans and a multitude of other publications and workshops on health and other disaster and other crisis preparedness, risk management and response, as well as a multitude of other health care, workforce and other management and regulatory affairs publications and presentations, Ms. Stamer also shares her thought leadership through her extensive and diverse involvement in a broad range of other professional and civic organizations.  Examples of these involvements include her service as the current American Bar Association (ABA) International Section Life Sciences Committee Vice Chair, Scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) Annual OCR Agency Meeting and a former JCEB Council Representative;  past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group; former ABA RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group Chair and Past Chair and current Co-Chair of its Welfare Benefits Committee;  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; former technical advisor to the National Physicians Council on Health Care Policy; former member of the Stem Cell Advisory Committee; and in a multitude of other professional, trade, civic and community service organizations.

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NOTICE:   These statements and materials are for general informational and purposes only. They do not establish an attorney-client relationship, are not legal advice or an offer or commitment to provide legal advice, and do not serve as a substitute for legal advice. Readers are urged to engage competent legal counsel for consultation and representation in light of the specific facts and circumstances presented in their unique circumstance at any particular time. No comment or statement in this publication is to be construed as legal advice or an admission. The author and Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ reserve the right to qualify or retract any of these statements at any time. Likewise, the content is not tailored to any particular situation and does not necessarily address all relevant issues. Because the law is rapidly evolving and rapidly evolving rules makes it highly likely that subsequent developments could impact the currency and completeness of this discussion. The author and Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ disclaim, and have no responsibility to provide any update or otherwise notify anyone any such change, limitation, or other condition that might affect the suitability of reliance upon these materials or information otherwise conveyed in connection with this program. Readers may not rely upon, are solely responsible for, and assume the risk and all liabilities resulting from their use of this publication.  Readers acknowledge and agree to the conditions of this Notice as a condition of their access of this publication.  Circular 230 Compliance. The following disclaimer is included to ensure that we comply with U.S. Treasury Department Regulations. Any statements contained herein are not intended or written by the writer to be used, and nothing contained herein can be used by you or any other person, for the purpose of (1) avoiding penalties that may be imposed under federal tax law, or (2) promoting, marketing or recommending to another party any tax-related transaction or matter addressed herein. ©2020 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Limited non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.™.

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