OCR Adds HIPAA Privacy Rule Enforcement Relief For Community-Based COVID-19 Testing Sites; Updated HIPAA Risk Assessments Advisable For COVID-19 Impacted Operational Changes

All Health Care Providers & Business Associates Reminded To Conduct Documented Risk Assessments In Response To COVID-19 Operational Changes

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.

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

We hope this update is helpful. In addition to this update, the author of this article also is extensively published and frequent speaker on HIPAA and other medical privacy and security, pandemic and other infectious disease, and other health industry crisis preparedness and response, regulatory compliance, risk management and operations, public policy and other concerns. 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.  Solutions Law Press, Inc. invites you receive future updates by registering on our Solutions Law Press, Inc. Website and participating and contributing to the discussions in our Solutions Law Press, Inc. LinkedIn SLP Health Care Risk Management & Operations GroupHR & Benefits Update Compliance Group, and/or Coalition for Responsible Health Care Policy.

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 and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications. As a significant part of her work, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively on pandemic, business and other crisis planning, preparedness and response for more than 30 years.

Scribe for the ABA JCEB Annual Agency Meeting with OCR, Vice Chair of the ABA International Section Life Sciences Committee, past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and the ABA RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group, Ms. Stamer is most widely recognized for her decades of pragmatic, leading edge work, scholarship and thought leadership on health and other privacy and data security and other health industry legal, public policy and operational concerns.  Ms. Stamer’s work throughout her 30 plus year career has focused heavily on working with health care and managed care, health and other employee benefit plan, insurance and financial services and other public and private organizations and their technology, data, and other service providers and advisors domestically and internationally with legal and operational compliance and risk management, performance and workforce management, regulatory and public policy and other legal and operational concerns.  As a part of this work, she has continuously and extensively worked with domestic and international health plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries, administrators, and insurers; managed care and insurance organizations; hospitals, health care systems, clinics, skilled nursing, long term care, rehabilitation and other health care providers and facilities; medical staff, accreditation, peer review and quality committees and organizations; billing, utilization management, 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; managed care organizations, self-insured health and other employee benefit plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries, administrators and service providers, insurers and other payers, 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.

This  involvement encompasses helping health care systems and organizations, group and individual health care providers, health plans and insurers, health IT, life sciences and other health industry clients prevent, investigate, manage and resolve  sexual assault, abuse, harassment and other organizational, provider and employee misconduct and other performance and behavior; manage Section 1557, Civil Rights Act and other discrimination and accommodation, and other regulatory, contractual and other compliance; vendors and suppliers; contracting and other terms of participation, medical billing, reimbursement, claims administration and coordination, Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, Medicare/Medicaid Advantage, ERISA and other payers and other provider-payer relations, contracting, 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; meaningful use, EHR, HIPAA and other technology,  data security and breach and other health IT and data; STARK, ant kickback, 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 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; 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. to establish, administer and defend workforce and staffing, quality, and other compliance, risk management and operational practices, policies and actions; comply with requirements; investigate and respond to Board of Medicine, Health, Nursing, Pharmacy, Chiropractic, and other licensing agencies, Department of Aging & Disability, FDA, Drug Enforcement Agency, OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, Department of Labor, IRS, HHS, DOD, FTC, SEC, CDC and other public health, Department of Justice and state attorneys’ general and other federal and state agencies; JCHO and other accreditation and quality organizations; private litigation and other federal and state health care industry actions: regulatory and public policy advocacy; training and discipline; enforcement;  and other strategic and operational concerns.

Author of “Privacy and the Pandemic Workshop” for the Association of State and Territorial Health Plans, as well as a multitude of other health industry matters, workforce and health care change and crisis management and other highly regarded publications and presentations, 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 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 also shares her extensive publications and thought leadership as well as leadership involvement in a broad range of other professional and civic organizations. For more information about Ms. Stamer or her health industry and other experience and involvements, see www.cynthiastamer.com or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

About Solutions Law Press, Inc.™

Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ provides human resources and employee benefit and other business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other coaching, tools and other resources, training and education on leadership, governance, human resources, employee benefits, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ resources available here such as:

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 your profile here. ©2020 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Limited non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ All other rights reserved.

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