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HIPAA Continuity of Care

Under HIPAA, continuity of care is not always as straightforward as it could be due to seemingly contradictory guidance issued by HHS’ Office of Civil Rights. Whereas the Privacy Rule would appear to allow disclosures of PHI for continuity of care and care coordination, the HHS’ guidance states disclosures of PHI between Covered Entities must be kept to the minimum necessary amount.  

The term “continuity of care” has various definitions. Some definitions imply care is continuous within the same healthcare organization (or Organized Health Care Arrangement), while others extend the definition to multiple healthcare settings. An example of this is a patient’s journey from a physician’s office to a hospital, then to a care home, then to a home health service.

With regards to HIPAA and continuity of care in a single healthcare setting – or within an Organized Health Care Arrangement – the Privacy Rule allows disclosures of Protected Health Information (PHI) for healthcare operations without patient consent or authorization. One of the permissible disclosures of PHI in this category is for “case management and care coordination”.

However, when continuity of care involves multiple providers in a linear process, some transfers of information can be incomplete due to the complicated language of the Privacy Rule and seemingly conflicting guidance issued by HHS’ Office for Civil Rights in 2019 with regard to HIPAA care coordination and HIPAA continuity of care.

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Continuation of Care, HIPAA, and What the Privacy Rule Says

In the context of continuation of care, HIPAA §164.506(c)(4) states a Covered Entity may disclose PHI to another Covered Entity for health care operations if either Covered Entity has or had a relationship with the individual who is the subject of the PHI being disclosed, if the PHI being disclosed pertains to such relationship, and if it is for a purpose allowed by the definition of health care operations.

The Privacy Rule (HIPAA §164.502(b)(2)) also states the minimum necessary standard does not apply to disclosures to or requests by a health care provider for treatment. Therefore, in the example given above of a patient’s journey from a physician’s office to a home health service, there should be no problem with the home health service obtaining PHI from the physician to provide treatment.

However, in guidance issued by HHS’ Office for Civil Rights, several examples are given in which it is permissible to transfer PHI between Covered Entities to support care coordination and continuity of care under HIPAA. However, the HHS guidance concludes with a reminder that “although such disclosures are permitted, they are subject to the minimum necessary standard”.

Office for Civil Rights Guidance for HIPAA Coordination of Care

The conclusion to the guidance can appear to contradict the Privacy Rule – particularly the clause stating the minimum necessary standard does not apply to disclosures for treatment. However, when the examples in the guidance are more closely examined, they relate to disclosures of PHI between health plans – rather than healthcare providers – which are not for treatment purposes.

Nonetheless, because the term Covered Entity is used in the guidance, some providers have applied the guidance to their healthcare operations and only provide the minimum necessary PHI to the next provider “up the continuity line”.  Provider B then has an incomplete medical history to transfer to Provider C, who also limits disclosures to the minimum necessary when handing off to Provider D.

Provider D (in our example, the home health service) can acquire the PHI they need from Provider A (the physician) to ensure continuity of care under HIPAA; but, because Provider A believes they have to obtain an authorization from the patient before disclosing more than the minimum necessary PHI, there is an avoidable delay in Provider D receiving potentially vital healthcare data – which can impact patient care.

Proposed Changes to Clarify HIPAA Care Coordination Rules

To clarify the position between HIPAA and care coordination, several Rule changes have been proposed. The proposed changes – if finalized – will not only impact HIPAA compliance, but other federal Rules that govern uses and disclosures of PHI (i.e., 42 CFR Part 2). The key Notices of Proposed Rule Making (NPRMs) that will clarify the care coordination HIPAA rules are:

The Office of Civil Rights’ Proposed Modifications to the Privacy Rule

This NPRM published in January 2021 proposes multiple HIPAA updates to “support, and remove barriers to, coordinated care and individual engagement”. Among the proposed changes to the Privacy Rule:

  • Disclosures of PHI will be permitted without the need to obtain consent or authorization to help individuals with a substance use disorder in emergency circumstances.
  • Disclosures of PHI for continuity of care and individual-level care coordination will be specifically permitted to avoid misunderstanding about when consent is required.
  • An exception to the Minimum Necessary Standard will be created for disclosures of PHI relating to individual-level HIPAA care coordination and case management.

Update to CMS Interoperability and Patient Access Final Rule

In 2020, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) published the Interoperability and Patient Access Final Rule. As the title suggests, the Rule has the primary objectives of improving interoperability between Medicare Covered Entities and enabling better patient access to PHI. Among other measures, a proposed update to the Rule published in December 2022 seeks stakeholder comments on how best to enable data exchanges via a Trusted Exchange Framework.

Closer Alignment of 42 CFR Part 2 and  the HIPAA Privacy Rule

Also at the end of 2022, the Office for Civil Rights and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) jointly published an NPRM that more closely aligns the Confidentiality of Substance Use Disorder Patient Records (42 CFR Part 2) with the uses and disclosures of PHI permitted by the HIPAA Privacy Rule. If finalized in its current format, the NPRM will better support compliance with HIPAA and care coordination for SUD and mental health patients.

Author: Steve Alder is the editor-in-chief of HIPAA Journal. Steve is responsible for editorial policy regarding the topics covered on HIPAA Journal. He is a specialist on healthcare industry legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA and other related legal topics. Steve has developed a deep understanding of regulatory issues surrounding the use of information technology in the healthcare industry and has written hundreds of articles on HIPAA-related topics.


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