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Mobile, walk-up and drive-through COVID-19 testing sites operated by hospitals, healthcare providers, and pharmacy chains are the latest beneficiaries of a series of targeted measures to relax enforcement for violations of the HIPAA health information privacy, security, and breach notification standards. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a Notice of Enforcement Discretion announcing that healthcare providers and their business associates will not be subject to penalties for noncompliance with the requirements of the HIPAA Rules in connection with their “good faith” participation in the operation of community based testing sites (CBTS) during the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency. OCR will apply the provisions of its enforcement discretion retroactively to March 13, 2020.

What is Good Faith?

The HIPAA Rules do not define “Good Faith.”  OCR has used the term in many of its recent COVID-19 related guidance documents without specific explanation of what constitutes Good Faith.  In its recent FAQs for HIPAA and Telehealth, OCR describes good faith through specific examples of what constitutes “bad faith.”[i] In weighing if a healthcare provider in engaging in good faith participation in a CBTS, and covered by the notice, covered entities and business associates should weigh their actions against these examples unitl OCR clarifies its definition of what is Good Faith.

Who/Where Does This Apply?

OCR describes a CBTS as a mobile, drive-through, or walk-up site that only provides COVID-19 specimen collection or testing services to the public. OCR will apply its enforcement discretion to all activities that support the collection of specimens and operation of COVID-19 testing centers set up by healthcare providers and their business associates. Health plans and health care clearinghouses will only be excused for noncompliance with the HIPAA rules while performing a role as a covered healthcare provider and only to the extent that it is participating in a CBTS.

While OCR’s Notice of Enforcement Discretion applies to all of the standards of the HIPAA Privacy, Security, and Breach Notification Rules, the agency called-out specific examples of reasonable safeguards of violations that should be implemented when operating a CBTS:

Who/What is Not Covered?

OCR has established specific limits to how far its enforcement discretion will apply. The relaxation of enforcement for failure to comply with the HIPAA Rules does not apply to health plans or health care clearinghouses when they are performing health plan and clearinghouse functions.

Activities that involve the handling of PHI when performing non-CBTS will be out of bounds of OCR’s exercise of enforcement discretion. Examples provided by OCR of when there is the potential of HIPAA penalties for non-compliance with the Rules:

Stay connected with CynergisTek to receive the latest updates on security, privacy, and compliance amid the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. Our team is here to help you navigate this ever-changing environment. Please contact us if we can assist you with any questions about the requirements of the HIPAA Privacy Rule or to assist you in identifying and complying with the standards and specifications of the rule.

[1]Some examples of what OCR may consider as a bad faith provision of telehealth services that is not covered by the Notice of Enforcement Discretion:

  1. Conduct or furtherance of a criminal act, such as fraud, identity theft and intentional invasion of privacy;
  2. Further uses or disclosures of patient data transmitted during a telehealth communication that are prohibited by the HIPAA Privacy Rule (e.g. sale of the data, or use of the data for marketing without authorization);
  3. Violations of state licensing laws or professional ethical standards….; or,
  4. Use of public-facing remote communications products, such as Tik-Tok, Facebook Live, Twitch, or a chat room like Slack, which OCR has identified in the Notification as unacceptable forms of remote communication for telehealth because they are designed to be open to the public or allow wide or indiscriminate access to the communication.