Have you noticed that negotiating that business associate agreement has gotten a lot more difficult? Many companies that serve health care providers and health plans, generally known as business associates, have noticed. These companies include software vendors, benefits brokers, cloud computing providers, data storage/destruction companies, and accountants, among others.
The clients of these companies are citing HIPAA, ARRA, HITECH, data breach notification requirements, and state law mandates as they demand stricter contract language and additional rights and protections, such as the right to audit the business associate and to be held harmless in the event of any data mishap. Business associates that took HIPAA lightly in 2003 and 2004, when the HIPAA regulations first became effective (2005 and 2006 for the security regulations), are playing catch-up.
When President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), “business associates” may not have expected the significant effects that law would have on their businesses. Chief among those effects are mainly due to four sentences in The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act (pdf), passed as part of ARRA, and which generally became effective on February 17, 2010 (the breach notification mandate became effective on September 23, 2009), one year after enactment:
- “Sections 164.308, 164.310, 164.312, and 164.316 of title 45, Code of Federal Regulations, shall apply to a business associate of a covered entity in the same manner that such sections apply to the covered entity. The additional requirements of this title that relate to security and that are made applicable with respect to covered entities shall also be applicable to such a business associate and shall be incorporate[d] into the business associate agreement between the business associate and the covered entity.” ARRA Sec. 13401(a). This statement makes business associates directly subject to nearly all of the HIPAA security regulations, the HIPAA rules relating to electronic protected health information. Prior to the change, these obligations existed for business associates only as a matter of contract.
- “A business associate of a covered entity that accesses, maintains, retains, modifies, records, stores, destroys, or otherwise holds, uses, or discloses unsecured protected health information shall, following the discovery of a breach of such information, notify the covered entity of such breach.” ARRA Sec. 13402(b). This statement creates a new obligation for business associates – report to covered entities breaches of unsecured protected health information.
- “The additional requirements of this subtitle that relate to privacy and that are made applicable with respect to covered entities shall also be applicable to such a business associate and shall be incorporated into the business associate agreement between the business associate and the covered entity.” ARRA Sec. 13404(a). This statement makes business associates directly subject to nearly all of the HIPAA privacy regulations. Prior to the change, as with the security regulations, these obligations existed for business associates only as a matter of contract.
In response to these law changes, and in the absence of regulatory guidance, covered entities have been demanding modifications to existing business associate agreements or requesting new agreements. In both cases, covered entities are seeking greater assurances from their business associates concerning the handling of the covered entities’ protected health information.
On top of that, covered entities are weaving into business associate agreements and other agreements requirements under newly enacted state laws requiring protections for “personal information” in the hands of vendors (e.g., business associates) to curb identity theft. Given the cost and reputational harm that could come from a data breach, as well a growing enforcement activity, many covered entities are becoming more forceful in their negotiations, citing legal mandates and established company policies for their unwillingness to budge on many provisions, even those that go beyond statutory mandates.
What is a business associate to do? Here are some thoughts:
- Confirm your company is a business associate. (go to HHS HIPAA frequently asked questions and insert "business associate" for helpful guidance). In some cases, covered entities are blanketing all of their vendors with these agreements. If believe your company is not a business associate, raise it with your client. Of course, even if you avoid being considered a business associate, your customer/client still may demand written assurances under state law for the personal information you handle on its behalf.
- Become compliant. As noted above, the HIPAA privacy and security requirements are now directly applicable to business associates. While additional guidance is expected as to what this means precisely, there is enough existing guidance concerning covered entities for business associates to use to achieve compliance. Among other things, compliance means conducting a risk assessment, adopting a written set of policies and procedures concerning the safeguarding of protected health information, and training staff. Being compliant not only reduces risk, but in an environment of increasing attention to data privacy and security, compliance can be a competitive advantage.
- Review agreements carefully. Covered entities increasingly include contract provisions that provide the covered entity with greater protections than the law requires. To the extent possible, try to remove those provisions. In any event, it is important to know your obligations under these agreements; they can vary dramatically from covered entity to covered entity.
- Develop strategies for reviewing/complying with multiple contracts. Some business associates have many clients and, therefore, business associate agreements. Managing unique provisions multiple agreements can be daunting, although the ability to negotiate a uniform agreement across a client basis is increasingly unlikely. So, where possible, try to use similar provisions in all agreements and know ahead of time your approach to certain key provisions, such as handling data breaches.
- Understand the law. Even if you’ve mastered the determination of whether you are a business associate, the rules outlining your business' obligations likely will be evolving under HIPAA over the next few years, particularly with the expected growth of electronic health records and the expansion of health care. The same is true of state laws concerning personal information. In many cases these laws might coexist peacefully, in other cases there will be conflict. You need to be aware of the conflicts and be prepared to act accordingly.