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    HIPAA Privacy Regulations: Uses and Disclosures for Which an Authorization or Opportunity to Agree or Object is Not Required: Serious Threats to Health or Safety - § 164.512(j)

    As Contained in the HHS HIPAA Privacy Rules

    HHS Guidance: HIPAA Privacy in Emergency Situations

     

    HHS Regulations
    Uses and Disclosures for Which an Authorization or Opportunity to Agree or Object is Not Required: Uses and Disclosures to Avert a Serious Threat to Health or Safety - § 164.512(j)

     

    (j) Standard: Uses and disclosures to avert a serious threat to health or safety—(1) Permitted disclosures. A covered entity may, consistent with applicable law and standards of ethical conduct, use or disclose protected health information, if the covered entity, in good faith, believes the use or disclosure:

    (i)(A) Is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of a person or the public; and

    (B) Is to a person or persons reasonably able to prevent or lessen the threat, including the target of the threat; or

    (ii) Is necessary for law enforcement authorities to identify or apprehend an individual:

    (A) Because of a statement by an individual admitting participation in a violent crime that the covered entity reasonably believes may have caused serious physical harm to the victim; or

    (B) Where it appears from all the circumstances that the individual has escaped from a correctional institution or from lawful custody, as those terms are defined in §164.501.

    (2) Use or disclosure not permitted. A use or disclosure pursuant to paragraph (j)(1)(ii)(A) of this section may not be made if the information described in paragraph (j)(1)(ii)(A) of this section is learned by the covered entity:

    (i) In the course of treatment to affect the propensity to commit the criminal conduct that is the basis for the disclosure under paragraph (j)(1)(ii)(A) of this section, or counseling or therapy; or

    (ii) Through a request by the individual to initiate or to be referred for the treatment, counseling, or therapy described in paragraph (j)(2)(i) of this section.

    (3) Limit on information that may be disclosed. A disclosure made pursuant to paragraph (j)(1)(ii)(A) of this section shall contain only the statement described in paragraph (j)(1)(ii)(A) of this section and the protected health information described in paragraph (f)(2)(i) of this section.

    (4) Presumption of good faith belief. A covered entity that uses or discloses protected health information pursuant to paragraph (j)(1) of this section is presumed to have acted in good faith with regard to a belief described in paragraph (j)(1)(i) or (ii) of this section, if the belief is based upon the covered entity's actual knowledge or in reliance on a credible representation by a person with apparent knowledge or authority.

     

    HHS Description
    Uses and Disclosures for Which an Authorization or Opportunity to Agree or Object is Not Required: Uses and Disclosures to Avert a Serious Threat to Health or Safety

     

    In the NPRM we proposed to allow covered entities to use or disclose protected health information without individual authorization – consistent with applicable law and ethics standards – based on a reasonable belief that use or disclosure of the protected health information was necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to health or safety of an individual or of the public. Pursuant to the NPRM, covered entities could have used or disclosed protected health information in these emergency circumstances to a person or persons reasonably able to prevent or lessen the threat, including the target of the threat. The NPRM stated that covered entities that made disclosures in these circumstances were presumed to have acted under a reasonable belief if the disclosure was made in good faith, based on credible representation by a person with apparent knowledge or authority. The NPRM did not include verification requirements specific to this paragraph.

    In § 164.512(j) of the final rule, we retain the NPRM's approach to uses and disclosures made to prevent or lessen serious and imminent threats to health or safety, as well as its language regarding the presumption of good faith. We also clarify that: (1) rules governing these situations, which the NPRM referred to as “emergency circumstances,” are not intended to apply to emergency care treatment, such as health care delivery in a hospital emergency room; and (2) the “presumption of good faith belief” is intended to apply only to this provision and not to all disclosures permitted without individual authorization. The final rule allows covered entities to use or disclose protected health information without an authorization on their own initiative in these circumstances, when necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat, consistent with other applicable ethical or legal standards.

    The rule's approach is consistent with the “duty to warn” third persons at risk, which has been established through case law. In Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California (17 Cal. 3d 425 (1976)), the Supreme Court of California found that when a therapist's patient had made credible threats against the physical safety of a specific person, the therapist had an obligation to use reasonable care to protect the intended victim of his patient against danger, including warning the victim of the danger. Many states have adopted, through either statutory or case law, versions of the Tarasoff duty to warn. The rule is not intended to create a duty to warn or disclose. Rather, it permits disclosure to avert a serious and imminent threat to health or safety consistent with other applicable legal or ethical standards. If disclosure in these circumstances is prohibited by state law, this rule would not allow the disclosure.

    As indicated above, in some situations (for example, when a person is both a fugitive and a victim and thus covered entities could disclose protected health information pursuant either to § 164.512(f)(2) regarding fugitives or to § 164.512(f)(3) establishing conditions for disclosure about victims), more than one section of this rule potentially could apply with respect to a covered entity's potential disclosure of protected health information. Similarly, in situations involving a serious and imminent threat to public health or safety, law enforcement officials may be seeking protected health information from covered entities to locate a fugitive. In the final rule, we clarify that if a situation fits one section of the rule (for example, § 164.512(j) on serious and imminent threats to health or safety), covered entities may disclose protected health information pursuant to that section, regardless of whether the disclosure also could be made pursuant to another section (e.g., § 164.512(f)), regarding disclosure to law enforcement officials).

    The proposed rule did not address situations in which covered entities could make disclosures to law enforcement officials about oral statements admitting participation in violent conduct or about escapees.

    In the final rule we permit, but do not require, covered entities to use or disclose protected health information, consistent with applicable law and standards of ethical conduct, in specific situations in which the covered entity, in good faith, believes the use or disclosure is necessary to permit law enforcement authorities to identify or apprehend an individual. Under paragraph (j)(1)(ii)(A) of this section, a covered entity may take such action because of a statement by an individual admitting participation in a violent crime that the covered entity reasonably believes may have resulted in serious physical harm to the victim. The protected health information that is disclosed in this case is limited to the statement and to the protected health information included under the limited identifying and location information in § 164.512(f)(2), such as name, address, and type of injury. Under paragraph (j)(1)(ii)(B) of this section, a covered entity may take such action where it appears from all the circumstances that the individual has escaped from a correctional institution or from lawful custody.

    A disclosure may not be made under paragraph (j)(1)(ii)(A) for a statement admitting participation in a violent crime if the covered entity learns the information in the course of counseling or therapy. Similarly, such a disclosure is not permitted if the covered entity learns the information in the course of treatment to affect the propensity to commit the violent crimes that are described in the individual's statements. We do not intend to discourage individuals from speaking accurately in the course of counseling or therapy sessions, or to discourage other treatment that specifically seeks to reduce the likelihood that someone who has acted violently in the past will do so again in the future. This prohibition on disclosure is triggered once an individual has made a request to initiate or be referred to such treatment, therapy, or counseling.

    The provision permitting use and disclosure has been added in light of the broadened definition in the final rule of protected health information. Under the NPRM, protected health information meant individually identifiable health information that is or has been electronically transmitted or electronically maintained by a covered entity. Under the final rule, protected health information includes information transmitted by electronic media as well as such information transmitted or maintained in any other form or medium. The new definition includes oral statements to covered entities as well as individually identifiable health information transmitted "in any other form."

    The definition of protected health information, for instance, would now apply to a statement by a patient that is overheard by a hospital security guard in a waiting room. Such a statement would have been outside the scope of the proposed rule (unless it was memorialized in an electronic record), but is within the scope of the final rule. For the example with the hospital guard, the new provision permitting disclosure of a statement by an individual admitting participation in a violent crime would have the same effect as the proposed rule -- the statement could be disclosed to law enforcement, so long as the other aspects of the regulation are followed. Similarly, where it appears from all the circumstances that the individual has escaped from prison, the expanded definition of protected health information should not prevent the covered entity from deciding to report this information to law enforcement.

    The disclosures that covered entities may elect to make under this paragraph are entirely at their discretion. These disclosures to law enforcement are in addition to other disclosure provisions in the rule. For example, under paragraph § 164.512(f)(2) of this section, a covered entity may disclose limited categories of protected health information in response to a request from a law enforcement official for the purpose of identifying or locating a suspect, fugitive, material witness, or missing person. Paragraph § 164.512(f)(1) of this section permits a covered entity to make disclosures that are required by other laws, such as state mandatory reporting laws, or are required by legal process such as court orders or grand jury subpoena.

     

    HHS Response to Comments Received
    Uses and Disclosures for Which an Authorization or Opportunity to Agree or Object is Not Required: Uses and Disclosures to Avert a Serious Threat to Health or Safety

     

    Comment: Several commenters generally stated support for proposed § 164.510(k), which was titled “Uses and Disclosures in Emergency Circumstances.” One commenter said that “narrow exceptions to confidentiality should be permitted for emergency situations such as duty to warn, duty to protect, and urgent law enforcement needs.” Another commented that the standard “. . .based on a reasonable belief that the disclosures are necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of an individual” would apply in only narrow treatment circumstances. Some commenters suggested that the provision be further narrowed, for example, with language specifically identifying “imminent threats” and a “chain-of-command clearance process,” or by limiting permissible disclosures under this provision to “public health emergencies,” or “national emergencies.” Others proposed procedural requirements, such as specifying that such determinations may only be made by the patient's treating physician, a licensed mental health care professional, or as validated by three physicians. One commenter recommended stating that the rule is not intended to create a duty to warn or to disclose protected health information but rather permits such disclosure in emergency circumstances, consistent with other applicable legal or ethical standards.

    Response: We agree with the commenters who noted that the proposed provision would apply in rare circumstances. We clarify, however, that we did not intend for the proposed provision to apply to emergency treatment scenarios as discussed below. In the final rule, to avoid confusion over the circumstances in which we intend this section to apply, we retitle it “Uses and Disclosures to Avert a Serious Threat to Health or Safety.”

    We do not believe it would be appropriate to narrow further the scope of permissible disclosures under this section to respond to specifically identified “imminent threats,” a “public health emergency,” or a “national emergency.” We believe it would be impossible to enumerate all of the scenarios that may warrant disclosure of protected health information pursuant to this section. Such cases may involve a small number of people and may not necessarily involve a public health emergency or a national emergency.

    Furthermore, in response to comments arguing that the proposed provision was too broad, we note that under both the NPRM and the final rule, we allow but do not require disclosures in situations involving serious and imminent threats to health or safety. Health plans and covered health care providers may make the disclosures allowed under § 164.512(j) consistent with applicable law and standards of ethical conduct.

    As indicated in the preamble to the NPRM, the proposed approach is consistent with statutory and case law addressing this issue. The most well-known case on the topic is Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California, 17 Cal. 3d 425 (1976), which established a duty to warn those at risk of harm when a therapist's patient made credible threats against the physical safety of a specific person. The Supreme Court of California found that the therapist involved in the case had an obligation to use reasonable care to protect the intended victim of his patient against danger, including warning the victim of the peril. Many states have adopted, in statute or through case law, versions of the Tarasoff duty to warn or protect. Although Tarasoff involved a psychiatrist, this provision is not limited to disclosures by psychiatrists or other mental health professionals. As stated in the preamble of the NPRM, we clarify that § 164.512(j) is not intended to create a duty to warn or disclose protected health information.

    Comment: Several comments addressed the portion of proposed § 164.510(k) that would have provided a presumption of reasonable belief to covered entities that disclosed protected health information pursuant to this provision, when such disclosures were made in good faith, based on credible representation by a person with apparent knowledge or authority. Some commenters recommended that this standard be applied to all permissible disclosures without consent or to such disclosures to law enforcement officials.

    Alternatively, a group representing health care provider management firms believed that the proposed presumption of reasonable belief would not have provided covered entities with sufficient protection from liability exposure associated with improper uses or disclosures. This commenter recommended that a general good-faith standard apply to covered entities' decisions to disclose protected health information to law enforcement officials. A health plan said that HHS should consider applying the standard of reasonable belief to all uses and disclosures that would have been allowed under proposed § 164.510. Another commenter questioned how the good-faith presumption would apply if the information came from a confidential informant or from a person rather than a doctor, law enforcement official, or government official. (The NPRM listed doctors, law enforcement officials, and other government officials as examples of persons who may make credible representations pursuant to this section.)

    Response: As discussed above, this provision is intended to apply in rare circumstances - circumstances that occur much less frequently than those described in other parts of the rule. Due to the importance of averting serious and imminent threats to health and safety, we believe it is appropriate to apply a presumption of good faith to covered entities disclosing protected health information under this section. We believe that the extremely time-sensitive and urgent conditions surrounding the need to avert a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety are fundamentally different from those involved in disclosures that may be made pursuant to other sections of the rule. Therefore, we do not believe it would be appropriate to apply to other sections of the rule the presumption of good faith that applies in § 164.512(j). We clarify that we intend for the presumption of good faith to apply if the disclosure is made in good faith based upon a credible representation by any person with apparent knowledge or authority—not just by doctors, law enforcement or other government officials. Our listing of these persons in the NPRM was illustrative only, and it was not intended to limit the types of persons who could make such a credible representation to a covered entity.

    Comment: One commenter questioned under what circumstances proposed § 164.510(k) would apply instead of proposed § 164.510(f)(5), “Urgent Circumstances,” which permitted covered entities to disclose protected health information to law enforcement officials about individuals who are or are suspected to be victims of a crime, abuse, or other harm, if the law enforcement official represents that the information is needed to determine whether a violation of law by a person other than the victim has occurred and immediate law enforcement activity that depends upon obtaining such information may be necessary.

    Response: First, we note that inclusion of this provision as § 164.510(f)(5)(5) was a drafting error which subsequently was clarified in technical corrections to the NPRM. In fact, proposed § 164.510(f)(3) addressed the identical circumstances, which in this subsection were titled “Information about a Victim of Crime or Abuse.” The scenarios described under § 164.510(f)(3) may or may not involve serious and imminent threats to health or safety.

    Second, as discussed in the main section of the preamble to § 164.512(j), we recognize that in some situations, more than one section of this rule potentially could apply with respect to a covered entity's potential disclosure of protected health information. We clarify that if a situation fits one section of the rule (e.g., § 164.512(j) on serious and imminent threats to health or safety), health plans and covered health care providers may disclose protected health information pursuant to that section, regardless of whether the disclosure also could be made pursuant to another section (e.g., §§ 164.512(f)(2) or 164.512(f)(3), regarding disclosure of protected health information about suspects or victims to law enforcement officials), except as otherwise stated in the rule.

    Comment: A state health department indicated that the disclosures permitted under this section may be seen as conflicting with existing law in many states.

    Response: As indicated in the regulation text for § 164.512(j), this section allows disclosure consistent with applicable law and standards of ethical conduct. We do not preempt any state law that would prohibit disclosure of protected health information in the circumstances to which this section applies. (See Part 160, Subpart B.)

    Comment: Many commenters stated that the rule should require that any disclosures should not modify “duty to warn” case law or statutes.

    Response: The rule does not affect case law or statutes regarding “duty to warn.” In § 164.512(j), we specifically permit covered entities to disclose protected health information without authorization for the purpose of protecting individuals from imminent threats to health and safety, consistent with state laws and ethical obligations.