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Alex Azar, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), has declared a public health emergency (PHE) in Puerto Rico and the states of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina due to Hurricane Dorian. On September 4, a PHE was also declared in North Carolina, retroactive to September 1, 2019.
The announcement follows the presidential PHE in the above areas as the states prepare for when the hurricane makes landfall. The declaration was accompanied by the announcement of a limited waiver of HIPAA sanctions and penalties for certain provisions of the HIPAA Privacy Rule, as mandated by the Project Bioshield Act of 2004 of the Social Security Act. The waiver only applies in the emergency areas and for the period of time covered by the PHE.
The waiver applies to hospitals that have implemented their disaster protocol, and only for up to 72 hours from when the disaster protocol was implemented, unless the PHE declaration terminates before that 72-hour period has elapsed.
Once the PHE comes to an end, hospitals are required to comply with all requirements of the HIPAA Privacy Rule for all patients, including those still under the care of the hospital when the PHE ends. The HHS notes that during a PHE, the requirements of the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules remain in place.
Even in the absence of a HIPAA waiver, the HIPAA Privacy Rule permits the sharing of patient information with friends, family, public health officials, and emergency personnel. Entities can share patient information for the purposes of providing treatment, for public health activities, and to lessen a serious threat to public health or safety. Information can also be shared with patients’ friends, family and other individuals involved in their care to ensure that proper care and treatment can be provided.
Under the terms of the HIPAA waiver, the HHS agrees to waive HIPAA sanctions and penalties for the following provisions of the HIPAA Privacy Rule:
- 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).
Further information on the waiver and HIPAA privacy and disclosures of PHI in emergency situations can be found on the following link: https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/hurricane-dorian-hipaa-bulletin.pdf