HHS Issues Limited Waiver of HIPAA Sanctions and Penalties in California

The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has issued a limited waiver of HIPAA sanctions and penalties in California. The waiver was announced following the presidential declaration of a public health emergency in northern California due to the wildfires.

As was the case with the waivers issued after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the limited waiver of HIPAA sanctions and penalties only applies when healthcare providers have implemented their disaster protocol, and then only for a period of up to 72 hours following the implementation of that protocol. In the event of the public health emergency declaration ending, healthcare organizations must then comply with all provisions of the HIPAA Privacy Rule for all patients still under their care, even if the 72-hour period has not yet ended.

Whenever the HHS issued a limited waiver of HIPAA sanctions and penalties, healthcare organizations must still comply with the requirements of the HIPAA Security Rule and the Privacy Rule is not suspended.  The HHS simply exercises its authority under the Project Bioshield Act of 2004 (PL 108-276) and section 1135(b) (7) of the Social Security Act, and will not impose sanctions or penalties against healthcare organizations for the following provisions of the HIPAA Privacy Rule:

  • 45 CFR 164.510(b) – The requirements to obtain a patient’s agreement to speak with family members or friends involved in the patient’s care.
  • 45 CFR 164.510(a) – The requirement to honor a request to opt out of the facility directory.
  • 45 CFR 164.520 – The requirement to 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.

Even in emergency situations, the HIPAA Privacy Rule permits HIPAA-covered entities to share patients’ PHI to assist in disaster relief efforts and to help ensure patients receive the care they need.

PHI may also be disclosed for the purpose of providing treatment to patients, in order to coordination patient care, or when referring patients to other healthcare providers.  PHI can be shared for public health activities to allow organizations to carry out their public health missions. Disclosures can be made to family members, friends, and other individuals involved in a patients’ care, as necessary, to identify, locate, or notify family members of the patient’s location, condition, or loss of life. Disclosures can be made to anyone, as necessary, to prevent or lessen a serious injury and disclosures can be made to the media about a patient’s general health status and limited facility directory information can also be disclosed for a named patient, provided the patient has not objected to such disclosures.

In all cases, the ‘minimum necessary’ standard applies. Information should be restricted to the minimum necessary information to achieve the specific purpose for which it is disclosed.

Further information on the waiver can be found in the HHS bulletin on this link.

Author: Steve Alder has many years of experience as a journalist, and comes from a background in market research. He is a specialist on legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA. Steve holds a B.Sc. from the University of Liverpool.