HHS Secretary Azar Announces HIPAA Updates

While addressing the Heritage Foundation in earlier this month, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Alex Azar, announced that the HHS plans to undertake several updates and reforms to health privacy regulations before the end of the year. In his speech, he explicitly mentioned updates to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and 45 CFR Part 2 (Part 2) regulations, which governs substance abuse treatment records.

While speaking about the efforts of the Trump administration to improve efficiency and reward outcomes in clinical treatment, Secretary Azar said that these reforms would be commencing “in the coming months”. Requests for information on HIPAA and Part 2 will be issued to organisations in the healthcare community. Following this period of data collection, action will be taken to reform both sets of rules. A particular focus will be placed on removing obstacles to value-based care and support efforts to combat the opioid crisis.

HHS will also make an effort to reform the manner in which data is shared between healthcare professionals. Critics claim that the current rules hinder the integration of new technologies into the healthcare system, and hamper the development of new electronic health technologies. As improving the efficiency of the healthcare system is a primary goal of the administration, easing the rules on healthcare providers when it comes to the use of digital technology is key.

The HIPAA rules were last updated in 2013 following the introduction of the Omnibus Final Rule. This mostly covered the responsibilities of business associates under HIPAA. Many critics of HIPAA claim that the regulation should receive another update, in order to make it more applicable in the modern healthcare system and compatible with the fast rate at which technology is improving.

The call for information by HHS are part of efforts to compile a comprehensive review of current regulations that are hampering the ability of doctors, hospitals, and payers to improve the quality healthcare services and coordination of care while helping to reduce healthcare costs.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has already taken steps to reform the system. The organisation has already proposed drastic overhauls to the Medicare in recent years, including reforms to how physicians are paid for basic evaluation visits. The system is currently divided into five tiers, with payments increasing for visits of increasing complexity. Although this system seems intuitive, in practice in involves a considerable administrative burden on physicians. Doctors are often required to justify why they are claiming for a visit at a higher tier, taking time away from their work with their patients.

To remove some of the bureaucracy, the CMS has proposed reducing the five tiers to two. That simple change is expected to save physicians more than 50 hours a year in administrative work. This equates to affording the doctors approximately an extra week every year that can be dedicated to providing better care to patients.

The CMS has also submitted a request for information of issues with Stark’s Law, which prevents physicians from referring patients to other healthcare providers with which they have a financial relationship, except in certain situations. Requests for information on HIPAA, Part 2, and the Anti-Kickback Statute will follow.

Those who work in the healthcare system and wish to express their concerns about regulations such as HIPAA, Part 2, and the Anti-Kickback Statute should consider preparing comments and suggestions for policy updates to address those issues. The HHS is expected to issue its request for information shortly in the next few months.