The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) wants to make it easier for individuals to reach a healthcare provider, including those most at risk (older persons and persons with disabilities). Effective immediately, during the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency, OCR announced it will not enforce noncompliance with the regulatory requirements under the HIPAA Rules against covered health care providers in connection with the good faith provision of telehealth.

In short, covered health care providers subject to the HIPAA Rules may seek to communicate with patients and provide telehealth services through remote communications technologies, some of which may not fully comply with the requirements of the HIPAA Rules, without the threat of enforcement.

A couple of key points about this announcement:

  • covered health care providers that want to use audio or video communication technology to provide telehealth in good faith to patients during the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency can use any non-public facing remote communication product that is available to communicate with patients.
  • The announcement applies to telehealth provided for any reason, not just services related to the diagnosis and treatment of health conditions related to COVID-19.

In the exercise of their professional judgement, for example, a covered health care provider may request to examine a patient exhibiting COVID- 19 symptoms using a video chat application connecting the provider’s or patient’s phone or desktop computer in order to assess a greater number of patients while limiting the risk of infection of other persons who would be exposed from an in-person consultation.  The provider may use popular applications that allow for video chats, including Apple FaceTime, Facebook Messenger video chat, Google Hangouts video, or Skype, to provide telehealth.

However, OCR advises providers to take some precautions:

  • notify patients that these third-party applications potentially introduce privacy risks,
  • enable all available encryption and privacy modes when using such applications,
  • public facing video communication applications, such as Facebook Live, Twitch, TikTok, and similar should not be used in the provision of telehealth,
  • where applicable, use technology vendors that are HIPAA compliant and will enter into HIPAA business associate agreements (BAAs) in connection with the provision of their video communication products. OCR listed some vendors that represent that they provide HIPAA-compliant video communication and that will enter into a HIPAA BAA (Skype for Business, Updox, VSee, Zoom for Healthcare, Doxy.me, Google G Suite Hangouts Meet), but has not endorsed any of these or their BAAs.

The OCR’s guidance extends to BAAs in this context. It will not impose penalties against covered health care providers for the lack of a BAA with video communication vendors relating to the good faith provision of telehealth services during the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency.

This is welcomed news and should help facilitate the availability of care, particularly to those most at risk.

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Photo of Joseph J. Lazzarotti Joseph J. Lazzarotti

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a Principal in the Morristown, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently leads the firm’s Privacy, e-Communication and Data Security Practice, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) with…

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a Principal in the Morristown, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently leads the firm’s Privacy, e-Communication and Data Security Practice, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) with the International Association of Privacy Professionals. Trained as an employee benefits lawyer, focused on compliance, Mr. Lazzarotti also is a member of the firm’s Employee Benefits Practice Group.

In short, his practice focuses on the matrix of laws governing the privacy, security, and management of data, as well as the impact and regulation of social media. He also counsels companies on compliance, fiduciary, taxation, and administrative matters with respect to employee benefit plans.

Privacy and cybersecurity experience – Mr. Lazzarotti counsels multinational, national and regional companies in all industries on the broad array of laws, regulations, best practices, and preventive safeguards. The following are examples of areas of focus in his practice:

  • Advising health care providers, business associates, and group health plan sponsors concerning HIPAA/HITECH compliance, including risk assessments, policies and procedures, incident response plan development, vendor assessment and management programs, and training.
  • Coached hundreds of companies through the investigation, remediation, notification, and overall response to data breaches of all kinds – PHI, PII, payment card, etc.
  • Helping organizations address questions about the application, implementation, and overall compliance with European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and, in particular, its implications in the U.S., together with preparing for the California Consumer Privacy Act.
  • Working with organizations to develop and implement video, audio, and data-driven monitoring and surveillance programs. For instance, in the transportation and related industries, Joe has worked with numerous clients on fleet management programs involving the use of telematics, dash-cams, event data recorders (EDR), and related technologies. He also has advised many clients in the use of biometrics including with regard to consent, data security, and retention issues under BIPA and other laws.
  • Assisting clients with growing state data security mandates to safeguard personal information, including steering clients through detailed risk assessments and converting those assessments into practical “best practice” risk management solutions, including written information security programs (WISPs). Related work includes compliance advice concerning FTC Act, Regulation S-P, GLBA, and New York Reg. 500.
  • Advising clients about best practices for electronic communications, including in social media, as well as when communicating under a “bring your own device” (BYOD) or “company owned personally enabled device” (COPE) environment.
  • Conducting various levels of privacy and data security training for executives and employees
  • Supports organizations through mergers, acquisitions, and reorganizations with regard to the handling of employee and customer data, and the safeguarding of that data during the transaction.
  • Representing organizations in matters involving inquiries into privacy and data security compliance before federal and state agencies including the HHS Office of Civil Rights, Federal Trade Commission, and various state Attorneys General.

Benefits counseling experience – Mr. Lazzarotti’s work in the benefits counseling area covers many areas of employee benefits law. Below are some examples of that work:

  • As part of the Firm’s Health Care Reform Team, he advises employers and plan sponsors regarding the establishment, administration and operation of fully insured and self-funded health and welfare plans to comply with ERISA, IRC, ACA/PPACA, HIPAA, COBRA, ADA, GINA, and other related laws.
  • Guiding clients through the selection of plan service providers, along with negotiating service agreements with vendors to address plan compliance and operations, while leveraging data security experience to ensure plan data is safeguarded.
  • Counsels plan sponsors on day-to-day compliance and administrative issues affecting plans.
  • Assists in the design and drafting of benefit plan documents, including severance and fringe benefit plans.
  • Advises plan sponsors concerning employee benefit plan operation, administration and correcting errors in operation.

Mr. Lazzarotti speaks and writes regularly on current employee benefits and data privacy and cybersecurity topics and his work has been published in leading business and legal journals and media outlets, such as The Washington Post, Inside Counsel, Bloomberg, The National Law Journal, Financial Times, Business Insurance, HR Magazine and NPR, as well as the ABA Journal, The American Lawyer, Law360, Bender’s Labor and Employment Bulletin, the Australian Privacy Law Bulletin and the Privacy, and Data Security Law Journal.

Mr. Lazzarotti served as a judicial law clerk for the Honorable Laura Denvir Stith on the Missouri Court of Appeals.