On Monday, the Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (“HHS”) announced an enforcement action against Bayfront Health St. Petersburg (“Bayfront”) for allegedly failing to provide a mother timely access to her unborn child’s prenatal medical records. The enforcement action is noteworthy in that it marks OCR’s first

HHS’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (“SAMHSA”) proposed updated rules to clarify the scope of perceived barriers to sharing information regarding treatment for substance use disorders (SUDs) among providers, with research entities, and for law enforcement purposes. The proposed changes to the 42 C.F.R. Part 2 (“Part 2”) regulations appear in two Notices of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRMs”), which are also summarized in a Fact Sheet. These proposals are part of HHS’s Regulatory Sprint to Coordinated Care, an agency-wide effort to remove regulatory obstacles to care coordination and information-sharing. HHS is anticipated to release proposed rules on HIPAA, the Physician Self-Referral Law and Anti-Kickback Statute by the end of 2019 as part of this effort as well.

The proposed Part 2 updates could have significant impacts on how health care providers, researchers, and health technology companies protect and share SUD information with each other, so interested parties should submit comments on the NPRMs before the deadlines, and prepare to submit comments in response to HHS’s other Regulatory Sprint to Coordinated Care efforts in the coming months.

Background


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Electronic health record (EHR) vendor Allscripts recently disclosed on an earnings call that it has reached a tentative agreement with the Department of Justice (DOJ) to pay $145 million to settle an investigation into the regulatory compliance of one of its recent acquisitions, Practice Fusion. This news, combined with DOJ’s other recent successful enforcement actions against EHR companies, represents a trend and should be a warning that compliance is a priority when it comes health IT. We anticipate that there will be more Anti-Kickback, HIPAA, and False Claims Act cases against similar health IT targets in the pipeline.

Allscripts acquired Practice Fusion, also an electronic health record company, in February 2018. According to the company’s public SEC filing from the first quarter of 2019, the investigation “relates to both the certification Practice Fusion obtained in connection with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Electronic Health Record Incentive Program and Practice Fusion’s compliance with the Anti-Kickback Statute and HIPAA.”


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The HHS Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) closed out the month of April with some updates to HIPAA civil monetary penalty (“CMP”) limits and clarifications to OCR’s stance on the Privacy Rule’s application to transfers of electronic protected health information (“ePHI”) to third-party applications and application programming interfaces (“APIs”).

Differential CMP Caps Based on Enforcement Discretion

Under the current HIPAA Enforcement Rule, HHS employs a four-tier level of culpability scale in line with the HITECH Act. These four tiers correspond to appropriate CMPs ranges for violations by covered entities and business associates of the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules. These penalty tiers are adjusted for inflation pursuant to the cost-of-living formula set forth in the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act of 2015.

For instance, if a person did not know and, by exercising reasonable diligence, would not have known that the person violated the applicable HIPAA provision, the CMP range the person could be levied was $100-$50,000 for each identical violation, up to a maximum of $1.5 million for all such violations annually (before adjusted for inflation). The $1.5 million annual cap on CMPs for HIPAA violations applied across all four tiers, even though the minimum penalties for each tier increased in amount.

Since HHS began using this four-tier structure, however, there has been debate about whether the HITECH Act mandates different annual CMP caps for each of the tiers. OCR’s April 30, 2019 Federal Register Notice changes HHS’s prior position on this, and now imposes the following annual caps on CMPs for HIPAA violations:.


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  • More of our health information is becoming digital every day, as new technology companies enter the health care and wellness markets.
  • Many companies that hold a wealth of consumer health information are not covered by HIPAA.
  • Many consumers may not realize that their health information only is protected and they only have certain rights with respect to that information when it is held by certain entities, but not when it is held by others.
  • The private sector should work with regulators to develop a common sense, appropriate framework for use of health information by non-HIPAA covered entities.

As we await proposed HHS regulations on interoperability and patient access to data, and as more companies than ever before are collecting and using data to power advanced data analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to improve health care quality and delivery, it is important to understand the scope and limitation of protections and the applicability of the HIPAA Privacy Rule.

Patients, providers and caregivers now have access to a wide array of devices and applications to manage and track patient health, improve treatment adherence, and better coordinate care. Large technology companies, athletic gear manufacturers, and others are entering a rapidly growing consumer health technology market. They are developing new technologies including tracking apps, wearables, and social networks that are increasingly integrated into patients’ daily lives. With an estimated 86.7 million U.S. consumers owning wearable devices by 2019, patients are generating billions of data points that provide insight into their health. Yet many of these companies are not subject to existing privacy protections under HIPAA, creating a significant gap in consumer protections.

At the same time, HHS is pushing for greater interoperability and patient access to data to address a challenge that remains widespread even after the investment of billions of federal dollars into the adoption of electronic health records. Agencies are encouraging and mandating easier availability of electronic health data, through current and anticipated CMS and ONC regulations and through a variety of government initiatives such as: 1) Blue Button and MyHealtheData; 2) incentivizing the adoption of open APIs; 3) developing new fee-for-service payment policies regarding remote monitoring and virtual care reimbursement; and 4) launching Sync for Science, a technical standard for facilitating patient-mediated data exchange for research. Consumers and companies alike seek guidance on the implications of collecting, storing, maintaining, and commercializing personal health data.
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The HHS Office of Civil Rights published a new FAQ response (OCR FAQ) detailing the agency’s position that generally information blocking will violate the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules if it affects a covered entity’s access to its own protected health information (PHI) or its ability to respond to requests for access to PHI from patients. This follows a series of similar policy documents from HHS over the past 18 months that focus on preventing business arrangements or practices that would be defined as information blocking, and thereby, frustrating the goal of interoperability. Specifically, according to the OCR FAQ:

  • An electronic health records (EHR) vendor or cloud provider’s actions to terminate a covered entity’s access to its own electronic PHI (ePHI) (e.g., in a payment dispute) would violate the HIPAA Privacy Rule because those actions would constitute an impermissible use of PHI.
  • An EHR vendor or cloud provider’s refusal to ensure the accessibility and usability of a covered entity’s ePHI upon demand by the covered entity or to return a covered entity’s ePHI upon termination of the agreement, in the form and format that is reasonable in light of the agreement, would violate the HIPAA Security Rule.
  • A business associate may not deny a covered entity access to the PHI the business associate maintains on behalf of the covered entity if necessary to provide individuals with access to their PHI under the HIPAA Privacy Rule.
  • A covered entity that agrees to terms within a business associate agreement (BAA) that would prevent the covered entity from ensuring the availability of its own PHI as required would not be in compliance with the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules.

OCR has increasingly ramped up its enforcement of violations of the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules related to noncompliant BAAs, so the new OCR FAQ signals that information blocking provisions could be the source of future enforcement actions.


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On February 25, President Obama addressed a small audience at the White House, identifying the need for patient participation in health care and the importance of individualizing treatments for a particular patient. Obama said that precision medicine can lead to reduced costs, better care, and a more efficient health care system.  He stated “the health care system is actually more of a disease-care system in which the patient is passive, you wait until you get sick, a bunch of experts then help you solve it,” and that precision medicine is about “empowering individuals to monitor and take a more active role in their own health.” His remarks were quite genuine and showed his personal interest in precision medicine as he seemed to talk “off script” with his panelists.

A year ago the President launched the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) to accelerate medicine that delivers the right treatment at the right time to the right person, taking into account individuals’ health history, genes, environments, and lifestyles. This includes efforts by the NIH to build a 1 million-person voluntary national research cohort who will partner with researchers, share data, and engage in research to transform our understanding of health and disease through precision medicine.  It also includes efforts by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which has enrolled over 450,000 Veterans in the Million Veteran Program (MVP), a participant-driven research cohort.Vice President Biden’s cancer moonshot initiative builds on this initiative.


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A key event in Congress affecting health information technology occurred last week when two members of the Senate HELP Committee issued a discussion draft of their bipartisan legislation on health information technology (health IT).  This ambitious bill addresses many of the same areas as other recent bills, including information blocking, transparency, a star rating system

Featured Industry: Health Care
Spotlight on Best Practices, Litigation, Antitrust, and Tax for Health Care Companies

Crowell & Moring LLP is pleased to release its “2016 Litigation & Regulatory Forecasts: What Corporate Counsel Need to Know for the Coming Year.” The reports examine the trends and developments that will impact health care companies and other corporations in the coming year—from the last year of the Obama administration to how corporate litigation strategy is transforming from the inside out. This year will bring remarkable change for companies, as market disruptions and the speed of innovation transform industries like never before, and the litigation and regulatory environments in which they operate are keeping pace.


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