Further to our discussions of the proposed regulations to implement statutory amendments under the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (the “HITECH Act”), we summarize here a proposed changed to the definition of “business associate.” A significant part of the “HIPAA community” (covered entities, business associates and their agents and subcontractors) already is aware of the expanded application of HIPAA to business associates under HITECH. This expansion went into effect February 18, 2010, and, in fact, many business associate agreements currently are being modified in an attempt to reflect the statutory provisions. The HIPAA community, however, may not yet be aware of the proposal to further expand the direct application of the privacy and security rules under HIPAA to subcontractors performing functions for business associates.

A New Class of Business Associate

Prior to the HITECH Act changes, business associates and their agents and subcontractors were not directly subject to HIPAA. Instead, HIPAA required covered entities to obtain certain written assurances from their business associates. One of those written assurances was that business associates would ensure that their agents and subcontractors would agree to be subject to the same conditions and restrictions contained in the business associate agreement entered into with the covered entity.

The proposed regulations would include subcontractors in the group of “business associates” to the extent that they require access to protected health information. Such subcontractors are those persons who are not members of the business associate’s workforce, but perform functions for or provide services to a business associate. This would be the case even if the business associate has failed to enter into a business associate contract with the subcontractor. The regulator’s goal is to ensure the privacy and security protections will not lapse merely because a function is performed by an entity with no direct relationship with a covered entity, although the regulations seek public comments on the definition of subcontractor.

The proposed regulations state (emphasis added):

[W]e propose that downstream entities that work at the direction of or on behalf of a business associate and handle protected health information would also be required to comply with the applicable Privacy and Security Rule provisions in the same manner as the primary business associate, and likewise would incur liability for acts of noncompliance. We note, and further explain below, that this proposed modification would not require the covered entity to have a contract with the subcontractor; rather, the obligation would remain on each business associate to obtain satisfactory assurances in the form of a written contract or other arrangement that a subcontractor will appropriately safeguard protected health information. For example, under this proposal, if a business associate, such as a third party administrator, hires a company to handle document and media shredding to
securely dispose of paper and electronic protected health information, then the shredding company would be directly required to comply with the applicable requirements of the HIPAA Security Rule (e.g., with respect to proper disposal of electronic media) and the Privacy Rule (e.g., with respect to limiting its uses and disclosures of the protected health information in accordance with its contract with the business associate)

As the example above shows, if made final, the proposed regulation would further HIPAA’s reach and affect many businesses that may not currently view themselves as directly subject to the requirements or penalties under HIPAA. Many companies, including those that service the healthcare industry, such as health plans, likely will need to revisit their HIPAA-compliance measures.