Home » Blog Articles » HIPAA » Relaxing of HIPAA Requirements for Telehealth Solutions

The federal government recently announced that it was relaxing the regulations around HIPAA regulations. This is in response to the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) outbreak. More news stories on this topic will likely be available in the coming months.

A Brief History of HIPAA:

The commonly used term HIPAA is short for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. HIPAA was passed in order to create universal privacy standards that provide some protection for patients’ medical records. The act also protects other pieces of health information that is granted to medical providers, health plans and health systems.

The Department of Health and Human Services created these standards to help and protect patients. As patients access their medical records, HIPAA creates more restrictions on how their personal health and medical information is used.

The violation of the act can carry both civil and criminal penalties. The protection of a patient’s privacy rights is essential. Yet, the HIPAA act still allows for the disclosure of some forms of health data if this is done in a responsible manner.

Various state laws have created additional protections for patients since the original enacting of the HIPAA act at the federal level. The vast majority of healthcare plans and medical providers are covered by and must adhere to HIPAA ‘s legal requirements.

Temporary Relaxing of HIPAA Regulations:

In response to the Coronavirus, the federal government has relaxed the enforcement of HIPAA requirements for the healthcare industry. This decision means that the protection of a patient’s confidential medical data has potentially been weakened.

Yet, due to the disruption from the pandemic, the relaxing of HIPAA rules may help to push healthcare providers to offer more telehealth or telemedicine options. For example, the field of behavioral health can greatly benefit from the expansion of telepsychiatry services.

On a similar note, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently relaxed regulations for the healthcare providers and facilities who participate in the Medicare quality reporting programs. This includes the roughly 1.2 million clinicians in the Quality Payment Program.

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has reinforced this policy shift in their announcements. These government agencies have stated that they will waive potential penalties for HIPAA violations against health care providers that serve patients through everyday communications technologies (telehealth).

The actions of the OCR and HHS are in response to the nationwide public health emergency from Covid-19.

They are making it easier for individuals to contact their healthcare professionals. During this time these government agencies will not enforce noncompliance occurrences with HIPAA regulatory requirements. Especially if healthcare providers are making a good faith effort to treat their patients with telehealth tools. These digital communication technologies include popular applications that include video chat capabilities such as Apple FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts video, Go-To-Meeting or even Microsoft’s Skype.

Why Reduce HIPAA Requirements:

The goal is to expand access to healthcare professionals and treatment as concerns about disease spread across the nation. In the past, these tools were seen as a way to deliver medical advice to patients in remote locations. But now, the use of telehealth tools is one way to optimize resources and provide medical support to patients while still following social distancing protocols. Previously, popular communication tools like FaceTime and Skype were not considered HIPAA-compliant solutions for telemedicine. However, in the short-term, this has changed.

The goal of healthcare clinicians is to connect and communicate with patients and delivery services through video and audio technologies. For medical practitioners, this limits the need for an in-person appointment. This, in turn, will create more availability for a patient who may need an in-person appointment.

Current medical advice is encouraging individuals with mild illnesses to not seek the attention of a medical provider. In-person visits are only recommended for the most severe symptoms and illnesses. The vast majority of COVID-19 do not require an in-person visit with a doctor or other health professional. These cases are manageable outside of a traditional healthcare setting. Telehealth tools are helpful in these situations. If patients are in self-quarantine or sheltering at home, telehealth tools are particularly helpful for providing communication and treatment.

The hope is that remote communication and monitoring technology will make the current health system more efficient and flexible. Once the pandemic has passed, telemedicine tools could greatly expand people’s access to healthcare.

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