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D.C. District Court Limits the HIPAA Privacy Rule Requirement for Covered Entities to Provide Access to Records

On January 23, 2020, the D.C. District Court narrowed an individual’s right to request that HIPAA covered entities furnish the individual’s own protected health information (“PHI”) to a third party at the individuals’ request, and removed the cap on the fee covered entities may charge to transmit that PHI to a third party.

Specifically the Court stated that individuals may only direct PHI in an electronic format to such third parties, and that HIPAA covered entities, and their business associates, are not subject to reasonable, and cost-based fees for PHI directed to third parties.

The HIPAA Privacy Rule grants individuals with rights to access their PHI in a designated record set, and it specifies the data formats and permissible fees that HIPAA covered entities (and their business associates) may charge for such production. See 45 C.F.R. § 164.524. When individuals request copies of their own PHI, the Privacy Rule permits a HIPAA covered entity (or its business associate) to charge a reasonable, cost-based fee, that excludes, for example, search and retrieval costs. See 45 C.F.R. § 164.524(c) (4). But, when an individual requests his or her own PHI to be sent to a third party, both the required format of that data (electronic or otherwise) and the fees that a covered entity may charge for that service have been the subject of additional OCR guidance over the years—guidance that the D.C. District Court has now, in part, vacated.

The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act of 2009 (HITECH Act set a statutory cap on the fee that a covered entity may charge an individual for delivering records in an electronic form. 42 U.S.C. § 17935(e)(3). Then, in the 2013 Omnibus Rule, developed pursuant to Administrative Procedure Act rulemaking, the Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights (“HHS OCR”) implemented the HITECH Act statutory fee cap in two ways. First, OCR determined that the fee cap applied regardless of the format of the PHI—electronic or otherwise. Second, OCR stated the fee cap also applied if the individual requested that a third party receive the PHI. 78 Fed. Reg. 5566, 5631 (Jan. 25, 2013). Finally, in its 2016 Guidance document on individual access rights, OCR provided additional information regarding these provisions of the HIPAA Privacy Rule. OCR’s FAQ on this topic is available here.

The D.C. District Court struck down OCR’s 2013 and 2016 implementation of the HITECH Act, in part. Specifically, OCR’s 2013 HIPAA Omnibus Final Rule compelling delivery of protected health information (PHI) to third parties regardless of the records’ format is arbitrary and capricious insofar as it goes beyond the statutory requirements set by Congress. That statute requires only that covered entities, upon an individual’s request, transmit PHI to a third party in electronic form. Additionally, OCR’s broadening of the fee limitation under 45 C.F.R. § 164.524(c)(4) in the 2016 Guidance document titled “Individuals’ Right under HIPAA to Access their Health Information 45 C.F.R. Sec. 164.524” violates the APA, because HHS did not follow the requisite notice and comment procedure.” Ciox Health, LLC v. Azar, et al., No. 18-cv0040 (D.D.C. January 23, 2020).

All other requirements for patient access remain the same, including required time frames for the provision of access to individuals, and to third parties designated by such individuals. It remains to be seen, however, how HHS will move forward after these developments from a litigation perspective and how this decision will affect other HHS priorities, such as interoperability and information blocking.

© Polsinelli PC, Polsinelli LLP in California

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 Iliana L. Peters Data Privacy Shareholder Polsinelli Law Firm
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Iliana L. Peters believes good data privacy and security is fundamental to ensuring patients’ trust in the health care system, and to helping health care clients succeed in an ever-changing landscape of threats to data security. She is recognized by the health care industry as a preeminent thinker and speaker on data privacy and security, particularly with regard to HIPAA, the HITECH Act, the 21st Century Cures Act, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), the Privacy Act, and emerging cyber threats to health data.

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Lidia Niecko-Najjum helps clients solve problems through pragmatic and business-focused client counseling and advising. With 10 years of cumulative experience in nursing, policy, and law, her practice focuses on health care regulatory, coverage and payment, compliance, transaction, and policy matters. 

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