At long last, HHS unveils Modifications to the HIPAA Privacy, Security, Enforcement, and Breach Notification Rules

From their press release:

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) moved forward today to strengthen the privacy and security protections for health information established under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA).

The final omnibus rule greatly enhances a patient’s privacy protections, provides individuals new rights to their health information, and strengthens the government’s ability to enforce the law.

“Much has changed in health care since HIPAA was enacted over fifteen years ago,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.  “The new rule will help protect patient privacy and safeguard patients’ health information in an ever expanding digital age.”

The changes in the final rulemaking provide the public with increased protection and control of personal health information.  The HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules have focused on health care providers, health plans and other entities that process health insurance claims.  The changes announced today expand many of the requirements to business associates of these entities that receive protected health information, such as contractors and subcontractors. Some of the largest breaches reported to HHS have involved business associates. Penalties are increased for noncompliance based on the level of negligence with a maximum penalty of $1.5 million per violation. The changes also strengthen the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Breach Notification requirements by clarifying when breaches of unsecured health information must be reported to HHS.

Individual rights are expanded in important ways.  Patients can ask for a copy of their electronic medical record in an electronic form.   When individuals pay by cash they can instruct their provider not to share information about their treatment with their health plan.  The final omnibus rule sets new limits on how information is used and disclosed for marketing and fundraising purposes and prohibits the sale of an individuals’ health information without their permission.

“This final omnibus rule marks the most sweeping changes to the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules since they were first implemented,” said HHS Office for Civil Rights Director Leon Rodriguez.   “These changes not only greatly enhance a patient’s privacy rights and protections, but also strengthen the ability of my office to vigorously enforce the HIPAA privacy and security protections, regardless of whether the information is being held by a health plan, a health care provider, or one of their business associates.”

The final rule also reduces burden by streamlining individuals’ ability to authorize the use of their health information for research purposes.  The rule makes it easier for parents and others to give permission to share proof of a child’s immunization with a school and gives covered entities and business associates up to one year after the 180-day compliance date to modify contracts to comply with the rule.

The final omnibus rule is based on statutory changes under the HITECH Act, enacted as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) which clarifies that genetic information is protected under the HIPAA Privacy Rule and prohibits most health plans from using or disclosing genetic information for underwriting purposes.

The Rulemaking announced today may be viewed in the Federal Register at

The rule is currently available only in .pdf format, and it’s a staggering 563 pp:
Modifications to the HIPAA Privacy, Security, Enforcement, and Breach Notification Rules

Naturally, I skimmed the section on the Breach Notification Rule, and was pleased to see that the “harm” threshold had been replaced with a more objective standard that emphasizes assessing the likelihood the information has been compromised. Entities will need to perform a risk assessment that incorporates four factors:
(1) the nature and extent of the protected health information involved, including the types of identifiers and the likelihood of re-identification; (2) the unauthorized person who used the protected health information or to whom the disclosure was made; (3) whether the protected health information was actually acquired or viewed; and (4) the extent to which the risk to the protected health information has been mitigated.

HHS makes clear in its discussion that the feedback from commenters on the interim rule made it clear to them that the wording of the interim rule was not consistent with their intention that the presumption should be to notify in the event of a breach. They have addressed that in the final rule:

First, we have added language to the definition of breach to clarify that an impermissible use or disclosure of protected health information is presumed to be a breach unless the covered entity or business associate, as applicable, demonstrates that there is a low probability that the protected health information has been compromised.

We recognize that some persons may have interpreted the risk of harm standard in the interim final rule as setting a much higher threshold for breach notification than we intended to set. As a result, we have clarified our position that breach notification is necessary in all situations except those in which the covered entity or business associate, as applicable, demonstrates that there is a low probability that the protected health information has been compromised (or one of the other exceptions to the definition of breach applies).

Obviously, I’ve got a lot more to read through, but the final rule appears much stronger on breach notification.

In skimming, I also noticed that HHS estimates that, based on their experience, approximately 6.71 million individuals will be affected by the 19,000 breaches reported to HHS each year, which is, on average, roughly 353 affected individuals per breach.

About the author: Dissent

2 comments to “At long last, HHS unveils Modifications to the HIPAA Privacy, Security, Enforcement, and Breach Notification Rules”

You can leave a reply or Trackback this post.
  1. Anonymous - January 17, 2013

    One thing I was pleased to find was that “[U]nder the final rule, covered entities must ensure that they obtain satisfactory assurances required by the Rules from their business associates, and business associates must do the same with regard to subcontractors, and so on, NO MATTER HOW FAR “DOWN TEH CHAIN” THE INFORMATION FLOWS. This ensures that individuals’ health information remains protected by all parties that create, received, maintain, or transmit the information in order for a covered entity to perform its healthcare functions”. (The capitalized emphasis is mine.)

    • Anonymous - January 17, 2013

      Agree with you – that’s an important protection. But does it say anything about each step in the chain monitoring the one below to ensure that they are adhering to the contract or BAA? We’ve already seen too many breaches where a BAA was in place, but the CE didn’t ever check to see if it was in effect properly.

Comments are closed.