The HIPAA Privacy Rule

The HIPAA Privacy Rule establishes national standards to protect individuals’ medical records and other personal health information and applies to health plans, health care clearinghouses, and those health care providers that conduct certain health care transactions electronically.  The Rule requires appropriate safeguards to protect the privacy of personal health information, and sets limits and conditions on the uses and disclosures that may be made of such information without patient authorization. The Rule also gives patients rights over their health information, including rights to examine and obtain a copy of their health records, and to request corrections.

Who is Covered by the Privacy Rule

The Privacy Rule, as well as all the Administrative Simplification rules, apply to health plans, health care clearinghouses, and to any health care provider who transmits health information in electronic form in connection with transactions for which the Secretary of HHS has adopted standards under HIPAA (the “covered entities”). For help in determining whether you are covered, use CMS’s decision tool.

Health Plans. Individual and group plans that provide or pay the cost of medical care are covered entities.4 Health plans include health, dental, vision, and prescription drug insurers, health maintenance organizations (“HMOs”), Medicare, Medicaid, Medicare+Choice and Medicare supplement insurers, and long-term care insurers (excluding nursing home fixed-indemnity policies). Health plans also include employer-sponsored group health plans, government and church-sponsored health plans, and multi-employer health plans. There are exceptions—a group health plan with less than 50 participants that is administered solely by the employer that established and maintains the plan is not a covered entity. Two types of government-funded programs are not health plans: (1) those whose principal purpose is not providing or paying the cost of health care, such as the food stamps program; and (2) those programs whose principal activity is directly providing health care, such as a community health center,5 or the making of grants to fund the direct provision of health care. Certain types of insurance entities are also not health plans, including entities providing only workers’ compensation, automobile insurance, and property and casualty insurance. If an insurance entity has separable lines of business, one of which is a health plan, the HIPAA regulations apply to the entity with respect to the health plan line of business.

Health Care Providers. Every health care provider, regardless of size, who electronically transmits health information in connection with certain transactions, is a covered entity. These transactions include claims, benefit eligibility inquiries, referral authorization requests, or other transactions for which HHS has established standards under the HIPAA Transactions Rule.6 Using electronic technology, such as email, does not mean a health care provider is a covered entity; the transmission must be in connection with a standard transaction. The Privacy Rule covers a health care provider whether it electronically transmits these transactions directly or uses a billing service or other third party to do so on its behalf. Health care providers include all “providers of services” (e.g., institutional providers such as hospitals) and “providers of medical or health services” (e.g., non-institutional providers such as physicians, dentists and other practitioners) as defined by Medicare, and any other person or organization that furnishes, bills, or is paid for health care.

Health Care Clearinghouses.Health care clearinghouses are entities that process nonstandard information they receive from another entity into a standard (i.e., standard format or data content), or vice versa.7 In most instances, health care clearinghouses will receive individually identifiable health information only when they are providing these processing services to a health plan or health care provider as a business associate. In such instances, only certain provisions of the Privacy Rule are applicable to the health care clearinghouse’s uses and disclosures of protected health information.8 Health care clearinghouses include billing services, repricing companies, community health management information systems, and value-added networks and switches if these entities perform clearinghouse functions.

Understanding Health Information Privacy

The HIPAA Privacy Rule provides federal protections for individually identifiable health information held by covered entities and their business associates and gives patients an array of rights with respect to that information. At the same time, the Privacy Rule is balanced so that it permits the disclosure of health information needed for patient care and other important purposes.

The HIPAA Security Rule specifies a series of administrative, physical, and technical safeguards for covered entities and their business associates to use to assure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of electronic protected health information.

CLICK HERE for 5 important steps to protecting patient privacy.