Share this article on:
A public health emergency has been declared in areas of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and Florida affected by Hurricane Irma.
As was the case in Texas and Louisiana after Hurricane Harvey, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has announced a limited waiver of HIPAA Privacy Rule sanctions and penalties for hospitals affected by Irma.
OCR has stressed that the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules have not been suspended and covered entities must continue to follow HIPAA Rules; however, certain provisions of the Privacy Rule have been waived under the Project Bioshield Act of 2014 and Section 1135(b) of the Social Security Act.
In the event that a hospital in the disaster zone does not comply with the following aspects of the HIPAA Privacy Rule, penalties and sanctions will be waived:
- 45 CFR 164.510(b) – Obtain a patient’s agreement to speak with family members or friends involved in the patient’s care
- 45 CFR 164.510(a) – Honor requests to opt out of the facility directory.
- 45 CFR 164.520 – Distribute a notice of privacy practices.
- 45 CFR 164.522(a) – The patient’s right to request privacy restrictions.
- 45 CFR 164.522(b) – The patient’s right to request confidential communications.
The waiver only applies to penalties and sanctions in relation to the above provisions of the HIPAA Privacy Rule, only to hospitals in the emergency area that have implemented their disaster protocol, and only for the time period identified in the public health emergency declaration.
The waiver applies for a maximum of 72 hours after a hospital has implemented its disaster protocol. If either the President’s or HHS Secretary’s declaration terminates within that 72-hour time period, the hospital must immediately comply with all aspects of the HIPAA Privacy Rule for all patients under its care.
In emergency situations, the HIPAA Privacy Rule does permit the sharing of PHI for treatment purposes and with public health authorities that require access to PHI to carry out their public health mission. HIPAA-covered entities are also permitted to share information with family, friends, and others involved in an individual’s care, even if a waiver has not been issued. Further details of the allowable disclosures in emergency situations are detailed in the HHS HIPAA bulletin.
In all cases, covered entities must limit disclosures to the minimum necessary information to achieve the purpose for which PHI is disclosed.
Even during natural disasters, healthcare organizations and their business associates must continue to comply with the HIPAA Security Rule and must ensure appropriate administrative, physical, and technical safeguards are maintained to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of electronic protected health information to prevent unauthorized access and disclosures.