Under the HITECH Act, business associates are subject to the HIPAA privacy and security rules (the "HIPAA Rules") virtually to the same extent as covered entities. In addition to implementing this change for business associates ("BAs"), and providing additional guidance concerning what entities are business associates, the final HIPAA regulations issued last week also treat certain subcontractors of BAs as BAs directly subject to the HIPAA Rules. As a result of some of these changes, covered entities and BAs need to re-examine the relationships with their subcontractors to ensure they obtain the appropriate satisfactory assurances concerning the "protected health information" (PHI) they make available to those subcontractors.

Below are some of the key points from the final regulations concerning BAs and subcontractors:

  • Subcontractors. The final HIPAA regulations provide that subcontractors that create, receive, maintain, or transmit PHI on behalf of a BA are business associates. This is a significant expansion of the application of the HIPAA Rules; it makes subcontractors directly liable under the HIPAA Rules.

As a result of this change, just as covered entities need to ensure that they obtain satisfactory assurances concerning compliance with the HIPAA Rules (usually in the form of a business associate agreement, BAA) from their BAs, BAs must do the same with regard to certain subcontractors. This must continue no matter how far “down the chain” the PHI flows.

  • Business Associate Agreement Not Necessary to Establish Status as Business Associate. The final HIPAA regulations confirm that persons and entities that meet the definition of a BA have that status regardless of whether a "business associate agreement" is in place.
  • Data Storage Companies. Entities that maintain PHI (digital or hard copy) on behalf of a covered entity are BAs, "even if [they] do not actually view the [PHI]."  This provision may create significant compliance issues for cloud service providers, as well as hard copy document storage companies, that have access to the records of their clients but may never look at them. The conduit exception is a narrow one and only applies transmissions of data, not storage. 
  • Certain Groups Not Considered Business Associates.
    • Researchers generally are not considered BAs when performing research functions.
    • Banking institutions generally are not considered BAs with respect to certain payment processing activities (e.g., cashing a check or conducting a funds transfer)
    • Malpractice insurers generally are not considered BAs when providing services related to the insurance, but may be BAs when providing risk management and similar services to covered entities.

Transition rule for compliance. A transition rule under the final HIPAA regulations permits covered entities and BAs to continue to operate under certain existing contracts for up to one year beyond the compliance date (September 23, 2013) of the final regulations. A qualifying business associate agreement will be deemed compliant until the earlier of (i) the date such agreement is renewed or modified on or after September 23, 2013, or (ii) September 22, 2014. This rule only applies to the language in the agreements, the parties must operate as required under the HIPAA Rules in accordance with the applicable compliance dates. 

Covered entities and business associates may want to act more quickly to identify and contract with those individuals and entities from whom they must obtain satisfactory assurances under HIPAA.