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    HIPAA Privacy Regulations: Notice of Privacy Practices: Content of the Notice - § 164.520(b)

    As Contained in the HHS HIPAA Privacy Rules

    HHS Guidance: Notice of Privacy Practices

     

    HHS Regulations as Amended January 2013
    Notice of Privacy Practices: Content of the Notice - § 164.520(b)

     

    (b) Implementation specifications: Content of notice—(1) Required elements. The covered entity must provide a notice that is written in plain language and that contains the elements required by this paragraph.

    (i) Header. The notice must contain the following statement as a header or otherwise prominently displayed:

    “THIS NOTICE DESCRIBES HOW MEDICAL INFORMATION ABOUT YOU MAY BE USED AND DISCLOSED AND HOW YOU CAN GET ACCESS TO THIS INFORMATION. PLEASE REVIEW IT CAREFULLY.”

    (ii) Uses and disclosures. The notice must contain:

    (A) A description, including at least one example, of the types of uses and disclosures that the covered entity is permitted by this subpart to make for each of the following purposes: treatment, payment, and health care operations.

    (B) A description of each of the other purposes for which the covered entity is permitted or required by this subpart to use or disclose protected health information without the individual's written authorization.

    (C) If a use or disclosure for any purpose described in paragraphs (b)(1)(ii)(A) or (B) of this section is prohibited or materially limited by other applicable law, the description of such use or disclosure must reflect the more stringent law as defined in §160.202 of this subchapter.

    (D) For each purpose described in paragraph (b)(1)(ii)(A) or (B) of this section, the description must include sufficient detail to place the individual on notice of the uses and disclosures that are permitted or required by this subpart and other applicable law.

    (E) A description of the types of uses and disclosures that require an authorization under §164.508(a)(2)-(a)(4), a statement that other uses and disclosures not described in the notice will be made only with the individual's written authorization, and a statement that the individual may revoke an authorization as provided by §164.508(b)(5).

    (iii) Separate statements for certain uses or disclosures. If the covered entity intends to engage in any of the following activities, the description required by paragraph (b)(1)(ii)(A) of this section must include a separate statement informing the individual of such activities, as applicable:

    (A) In accordance with §164.514(f)(1), the covered entity may contact the individual to raise funds for the covered entity and the individual has a right to opt out of receiving such communications; (B) In accordance with §164.504(f), the group health plan, or a health insurance issuer or HMO with respect to a group health plan, may disclose protected health information to the sponsor of the plan; or

    (C) If a covered entity that is a health plan, excluding an issuer of a long-term care policy falling within paragraph (1)(viii) of the definition of health plan, intends to use or disclose protected health information for underwriting purposes, a statement that the covered entity is prohibited from using or disclosing protected health information that is genetic information of an individual for such purposes.

    (iv) Individual rights. The notice must contain a statement of the individual's rights with respect to protected health information and a brief description of how the individual may exercise these rights, as follows:

    (A) The right to request restrictions on certain uses and disclosures of protected health information as provided by §164.522(a), including a statement that the covered entity is not required to agree to a requested restriction, except in case of a disclosure restricted under §164.522(a)(1)

    (B) The right to receive confidential communications of protected health information as provided by §164.522(b), as applicable;

    (C) The right to inspect and copy protected health information as provided by §164.524;

    (D) The right to amend protected health information as provided by §164.526;

    (E) The right to receive an accounting of disclosures of protected health information as provided by §164.528; and

    (F) The right of an individual, including an individual who has agreed to receive the notice electronically in accordance with paragraph (c)(3) of this section, to obtain a paper copy of the notice from the covered entity upon request.

    (v) Covered entity's duties. The notice must contain:

    (A) A statement that the covered entity is required by law to maintain the privacy of protected health information, to provide individuals with notice of its legal duties and privacy practices with respect to protected health information, and to notify affected individuals following a breach of unsecured protected health information;

    (B) A statement that the covered entity is required to abide by the terms of the notice currently in effect; and

    (C) For the covered entity to apply a change in a privacy practice that is described in the notice to protected health information that the covered entity created or received prior to issuing a revised notice, in accordance with §164.530(i)(2)(ii), a statement that it reserves the right to change the terms of its notice and to make the new notice provisions effective for all protected health information that it maintains. The statement must also describe how it will provide individuals with a revised notice.

    (vi) Complaints. The notice must contain a statement that individuals may complain to the covered entity and to the Secretary if they believe their privacy rights have been violated, a brief description of how the individual may file a complaint with the covered entity, and a statement that the individual will not be retaliated against for filing a complaint.

    (vii) Contact. The notice must contain the name, or title, and telephone number of a person or office to contact for further information as required by §164.530(a)(1)(ii).

    (viii) Effective date. The notice must contain the date on which the notice is first in effect, which may not be earlier than the date on which the notice is printed or otherwise published.

    (2) Optional elements. (i) In addition to the information required by paragraph (b)(1) of this section, if a covered entity elects to limit the uses or disclosures that it is permitted to make under this subpart, the covered entity may describe its more limited uses or disclosures in its notice, provided that the covered entity may not include in its notice a limitation affecting its right to make a use or disclosure that is required by law or permitted by §164.512(j)(1)(i).

    (ii) For the covered entity to apply a change in its more limited uses and disclosures to protected health information created or received prior to issuing a revised notice, in accordance with §164.530(i)(2)(ii), the notice must include the statements required by paragraph (b)(1)(v)(C) of this section.

    (3) Revisions to the notice. The covered entity must promptly revise and distribute its notice whenever there is a material change to the uses or disclosures, the individual's rights, the covered entity's legal duties, or other privacy practices stated in the notice. Except when required by law, a material change to any term of the notice may not be implemented prior to the effective date of the notice in which such material change is reflected.

     

    HHS Description and Commentary From the January 2013 Amendments
    Notice of Privacy Practices: Content of the Notice

     

    Proposed Rule

    Section 164.520 of the Privacy Rule sets out the requirements for most covered entities to have and distribute a notice of privacy practices (NPP). The NPP must describe the uses and disclosures of protected health information a covered entity is permitted to make, the covered entity’s legal duties and privacy practices with respect to protected health information, and the individual’s rights concerning protected health information.

    Section 164.520(b)(1)(ii) requires a covered entity to include separate statements about permitted uses and disclosures that the covered entity intends to make, including uses and disclosures for certain treatment, payment, or health care operations purposes.

    Further, § 164.520(b)(1)(ii)(E) currently requires that the NPP contain a statement that any uses and disclosures other than those permitted by the Privacy Rule will be made only with the written authorization of the individual, and that the individual has the right to revoke an authorization pursuant to § 164.508(b)(5).

    We proposed to amend § 164.520(b)(1)(ii)(E) to require that the NPP describe the uses and disclosures of protected health information that require an authorization under § 164.508(a)(2) through (a)(4) (i.e., including a statement that most uses and disclosures of psychotherapy notes and of protected health information for marketing purposes and the sale of protected health information require an authorization), and provide that other uses and disclosures not described in the notice will be made only with the individual’s authorization.

    Section 164.520(b)(1)(iii) requires a covered entity to include in its NPP separate statements about certain activities if the covered entity intends to engage in any of the activities. In particular, § 164.520(b)(1)(iii) requires a separate statement in the notice if the covered entity intends to contact the individual to provide appointment reminders or information about treatment alternatives or other health-related benefits or services; to contact the individual to fundraise for the covered entity; or, with respect to a group health plan, to disclose protected health information to the plan sponsor.

    First, with respect to this provision, the NPRM proposed to modify § 164.520(b)(1)(iii)(A) to align the required statement with the proposed modifications related to marketing and subsidized treatment communications. The provision would have required a covered health care provider that intends to send treatment communications to individuals and has received financial remuneration in exchange for making the communication to, in its NPP, notify individuals of this intention and to inform them that they can opt out of receiving such communications. Second, at § 164.520(b)(1)(iii)(B) we proposed to require that if a covered entity intends to contact the individual to raise funds for the entity as permitted under § 164.514(f)(1), the covered entity must not only inform the individual in the NPP of this intention but also must inform the individual that he or she has the right to opt out of receiving such communications.

    Section 164.520(b)(1)(iv) requires that the NPP contain statements regarding the rights of individuals with respect to their protected health information and a brief description of how individuals may exercise such rights. Section 164.520(b)(1)(iv)(A) currently requires a statement and a brief description addressing an individual’s right to request restrictions on the uses and disclosures of protected health information pursuant to § 164.522(a), including the fact that the covered entity is not required to agree to this request.

    The NPRM proposed to modify § 164.520(b)(1)(iv)(A) to require a statement explaining that the covered entity is required to agree to a request to restrict disclosure of protected health information to a health plan if the disclosure is for payment or health care operations and pertains to a health care item or service for which the individual has paid out of pocket in full, as provided at § 164.522(a)(1)(vi).

    Under Subpart D of Part 164, covered entities now have new breach notification obligations. We requested comment on whether the Privacy Rule should require a specific statement regarding this new legal duty and what particular aspects of this new duty would be important for individuals to be notified of in the NPP.

    Overview of Public Comments

    We received several comments expressing support for the proposed requirement that the NPP include a statement about the uses and disclosures that require authorization. However, other commenters opposed this requirement, arguing that because not all uses and disclosures will apply to every individual, the statement will cause confusion and unnecessary concern. Additionally, these commenters argued that the cost of listing all of the situations requiring authorization would be significant.

    We received several comments in support of the proposed requirement that the NPP include a specific statement about authorization for uses and disclosures of psychotherapy notes. Some of these commenters requested that the final rule require covered providers to describe in their NPPs their recordkeeping practices with regard to psychotherapy notes and how those practices affect what information can be used and disclosed. Several commenters argued that only covered entities that record psychotherapy notes should be required to include a statement about the authorization requirement for psychotherapy notes in their NPPs.

    We also received several comments expressing concern regarding the proposed requirement to include information in the NPP about the individual’s right to opt out of receiving certain communications. These commenters argued that information notifying individuals that they could opt out of receiving further subsidized treatment or fundraising communications would provide little value to individuals at a significant cost to covered entities. These commenters felt that including this information would be unnecessary because all subsidized treatment and fundraising communications themselves will include an opt-out mechanism, and as such, including the information in the NPP may cause unnecessary concern for consumers.

    We received one comment in support of the requirement to include in the NPP a statement about an individual’s right to restrict certain uses and disclosures of protected health information if the individual pays for treatment or services out-of-pocket in full. We also received one comment suggesting that only health care providers should be required to include such a statement in their NPP.

    We received a number of comments supporting a requirement to include a statement in the NPP about the right to be notified following a breach of unsecured protected health information. One commenter suggested that explaining breach notification requirements in the NPP would help entities handle customer service issues that arise when customers become upset upon receipt of such a breach notification.

    However, a number of other commenters expressed opposition to this proposal due to concern that such a statement would cause unnecessary concern and fear among individuals who may believe that covered entities cannot appropriately secure their protected health information. Finally, we received one comment requesting that HHS specify the required elements of a breach notification statement for a NPP.

    Final Rule

    First, the final rule adopts the modification to § 164.520(b)(1)(ii)(E), which requires certain statements in the NPP regarding uses and disclosures that require authorization. We note that, contrary to some commenter concerns, the final rule does not require the NPP to include a list of all situations requiring authorization. Instead, the NPP must contain a statement indicating that most uses and disclosures of psychotherapy notes (where appropriate), uses and disclosures of protected health information for marketing purposes, and disclosures that constitute a sale of protected health information require authorization, as well as a statement that other uses and disclosures not described in the NPP will be made only with authorization from the individual.

    The final rule does not require the NPP to include a description of a covered entity’s recordkeeping practices with respect to psychotherapy notes; however, covered entities are free to include such additional information in their NPP if they choose.

    Additionally, in response to requests by some commenters, we clarify that covered entities that do not record or maintain psychotherapy notes are not required to include a statement in their NPPs about the authorization requirement for uses and disclosures of psychotherapy notes.

    Second, because the final rule treats all subsidized treatment communications as marketing communications, we have not adopted the proposal to require a statement in the NPP about such communications and the ability of an individual to opt out. For further discussion on the decision to treat all subsidized treatment communications as marketing communications requiring an authorization, please see the above discussion regarding § 164.501.

    The final rule, however, adopts the proposed requirement for a statement in the NPP regarding fundraising communications and an individual’s right to opt out of receiving such communications, if a covered entity intends to contact an individual to raise funds for the covered entity. Because individuals will be provided the opportunity to opt out of fundraising communications with each solicitation, the final rule does not require the NPP to include the mechanism for individuals to opt out of receiving fundraising communications, although covered entities are free to include such information if they choose to do so.

    The final rule also adopts the proposal that the NPP inform individuals of their new right to restrict certain disclosures of protected health information to a health plan where the individual pays out of pocket in full for the health care item or service. Only health care providers are required to include such a statement in the NPP; other covered entities may retain the existing language indicating that a covered entity is not required to agree to a requested restriction.

    The final rule also requires covered entities to include in their NPP a statement of the right of affected individuals to be notified following a breach of unsecured protected health information. We believe that individuals should be informed of their right to receive and the obligations of covered entities to provide notification following a breach.

    We disagree with the commenters who argued that such a statement would cause individuals unnecessary concern and would create unfounded fear that covered entities cannot appropriately secure protected health information. Such advance notice of their rights should provide helpful context for individuals should they later receive a breach notification. In response to comments, we also clarify that a simple statement in the NPP that an individual has a right to or will receive notifications of breaches of his or her unsecured protected health information will suffice for purposes of this requirement. We do not intend for this requirement to add undue complexity or length to a covered entity’s NPP. Thus, the statement need not be entity-specific, such as by describing how the covered entity will conduct a risk assessment, include the regulatory descriptions of “breach” or “unsecured PHI,” or describe the types of information to be provided in the actual breach notification to the individual. However, covered entities that wish to include additional or more detailed information may do so.

    Response to Other Public Comments

    Comment: One commenter expressed concern about the addition of more information to the NPP when it is already very long and complex, while several commenters recommended that the final rule require NPPs to be shortened, simplified, and written in a clear, easily understandable manner. In addition, while a few commenters suggested that HHS provide a sample or standard NPP, many more commenters requested flexibility in developing the content of their respective NPPs.

    Response: We believe that the additions to the NPP required by the final rule are necessary to fully inform individuals of the covered entity’s privacy practices and their rights. The NPP should be provided in a clear, concise, and easy to understand manner, and we clarify that covered entities may use a “layered notice” to implement the Rule’s provisions, so long as the elements required at § 164.520(b) are included in the document that is provided for the individual. For example, a covered entity may satisfy the NPP provisions by providing the individual with both a short notice that briefly summarizes the individual’s rights, as well as other information, and a longer notice, layered beneath the short notice that contains all the elements required by the Rule. Additionally, the Privacy Rule requires that the NPP be written in plain language, and we note that some covered entities may have obligations under other laws with respect to their communication with affected individuals. For example, to the extent a covered entity is obligated to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the covered entity must take reasonable steps to ensure meaningful access for Limited English Proficient persons to the services of the covered entity, which could include translating the NPP into frequently encountered languages. In addition, we agree with the commenters who suggested that covered entities have flexibility and discretion to determine how to draft and prepare their NPPs. Because each NPP will vary based on the functions of the individual covered entity, there is no “one size fits all” approach. However, we continue to explore options for making model or best practice language available.

    Genetic Information

    Proposed Rule

    As discussed above in Section IV with regard to the changes made to § 164.520 pursuant to the HITECH Act, § 164.520 of the Privacy Rule sets out the requirements for most covered entities to have and distribute a Notice of Privacy Practices (NPP). With respect to the NPP, the Department believes that individuals should be informed of their new rights and protections under this rule with respect to genetic information in the health coverage context. Thus, the Department proposed in § 164.520(b)(1)(iii)(D) to require health plans that use or disclose protected health information for underwriting to include a statement in their NPP that they are prohibited from using or disclosing protected health information that is genetic information about an individual for such purposes. Without such a specific statement, individuals would not be aware of this restriction and the general statements regarding permitted uses and disclosures for treatment, payment, and health care operations in the NPP of a health plan that performs underwriting would not be accurate (i.e., the NPP would state that the health plan may use or disclose PHI for purposes of payment and health care operations, which would not be true with respect to genetic information when the use or disclosure is for underwriting purposes).

    The preamble explained that the proposed prohibition on using or disclosing genetic information for underwriting and the proposed requirement to explicitly include a statement regarding the prohibition would represent a material change to the NPP of health plans that perform underwriting, and the Privacy Rule requires at § 164.520(c)(1)(i)(C) that plans provide notice to individuals covered by the plan within 60 days of any material revision to the NPP. As in the NPRM issued to implement HITECH Act provisions, the Department requested comment on ways to inform individuals of this change to privacy practices without unduly burdening health plans and provided several possible alternatives. The Department also explained that the obligation to revise the NPP for the reasons described above would fall only on health plans that intend to use or disclose protected health information for activities that constitute “underwriting purposes.” Thus, health care providers, as well as health plans that do not perform underwriting, would not be required to revise their NPPs.

    Overview of Public Comments

    One commenter supported informing individuals in the NPP that health plans are prohibited from using or disclosing genetic information for underwriting purposes. One commenter asked the Department to clarify that where a health plan has already made a change to the NPP to comply with a statute, such as with GINA, and has sent the revised NPP to members, the health plan would not be required to make another change to its NPP to comply with the regulation.

    A number of comments addressed the issue of the timing and manner of distributing revised NPPs. In general, commenters recommended various alternatives, including: (1) require health plans to provide a revised NPP to members in the next annual mailing; (2) require health plans to provide either a revised NPP or a supplement to members in the next annual mailing and to post the revised NPP or supplement on the health plan website immediately; (3) retain the existing 60-day deadline for providing a revised NPP to individuals or provide for a 30-day extension; and (4) allow for distribution via electronic processes for more efficient delivery of NPPs to members.

    Final Rule

    The final rule adopts the requirement for health plans that perform underwriting to include in their NPPs a statement that they are prohibited from using or disclosing genetic information for such purposes, except with regard to issuers of long term care policies, which are not subject to the underwriting prohibition. Health plans that have already modified and redistributed their NPPs to reflect the statutory prohibition are not required to do so again, provided the changes to the NPP are consistent with this rule. We also modify the NPP distribution requirements for health plans where there are material changes. These modifications are discussed above in Section IV with regard to material changes to the NPP resulting from changes pursuant to the HITECH Act.

    Other Comments

    Comment: One commenter requested clarification on preemption with regard to the new underwriting prohibition.

    Response: Pursuant to subpart B of Part 160 of the HIPAA Administrative Simplification Rules, to the extent that a provision of State law requires a use or disclosure of genetic information for an activity that would otherwise constitute “underwriting purposes,” such State law would be preempted by the Privacy Rule unless an exception at § 160.203 applies. In contrast, State laws that provide greater privacy protection for genetic information than the Privacy Rule continue to remain in place.

    Comment: One commenter asked how a health care provider should ensure that releasing an individual’s information to a health plan will not result in an inappropriate disclosure to the health plan for underwriting purposes. This commenter also asked what the rules are for access to protected health information about an individual by the individual’s extended family members seeking to determine if they are affected by a genetic trait.

    Response: With respect to the first question, these rules do not apply to health care providers. A covered health provider may continue to disclose protected health information, including genetic information, where doing so meets the minimum necessary standard, to health plans for payment purposes. Under this Rule, the onus is on the health plan to not use or disclose protected health information it receives for such purposes for prohibited underwriting purposes. Further, health plans continue to be required by the Privacy Rule to limit requests of protected health information to the minimum necessary when requesting such information from other covered entities. The regulations implementing sections 101-103 of GINA also restrict the ability of health plans covered by those rules to request genetic information.

    With respect to the second question, to the extent that an individual’s genetic information is needed for the treatment purposes of a family member, a covered health care provider is permitted to disclose such information, subject to any agreed-upon restriction, to another provider for the treatment of the family member. See FAQ #512 at http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/privacy/hipaa/faq/right_to_request_a_restriction/512.html, which makes clear that a health care provider may share genetic information about an individual with providers treating family members of the individual who are seeking to identify their own genetic health risks, provided the individual has not requested and the health care provider has not agreed to a restriction on such disclosure. Comment: One commenter requested that the rule require that health plans conducting or sponsoring research involving genetic information provide research participants with an explicit statement to ensure the individuals understand that such information may not and will not be used for underwriting purposes.

    Response We decline to require such a statement. The regulations implementing sections 101-103 of GINA already require a statement to that effect as a condition of the health plan requesting that a research participant undergo a genetic test as part of the research. See, e.g., 45 CFR 144.122(c)(5). Further, this rule requires that health plans that perform underwriting inform individuals through their NPPs that the plans may not use or disclose genetic information for such purposes.

    Comment: One commenter asked that the HIPAA de-identification standard be strengthened to provide better protection for health information, including genetic information.

    Response: The Privacy Rule’s de-identification standard is outside the scope of this rulemaking.

     

    HHS Description from Original Rulemaking
    Notice of Privacy Practices: Content of the Notice

     

    We proposed to require the notice to be written in plain language and contain each of the following elements: a description of the uses and disclosures expected to be made without individual authorization; statements that other uses and disclosures would be made only with the individual’s authorization and that the individual could revoke such authorization; descriptions of the rights to request restrictions, inspect and copy protected health information, amend or correct protected health information, and receive an accounting of disclosures of protected health information; statements about the entity’s legal requirements to protect privacy, provide notice, and adhere to the notice; a statement about how individuals would be informed of changes to the entity’s policies and procedures; instructions on how to make complaints with the entity or Secretary; the name and telephone number of a contact person or office; and the date the notice was produced. We provided a model notice of information policies and procedures for covered health care providers.

    In § 164.520(b), and immediately below in this preamble, we describe the notice content requirements for the final rule. As described in detail, below, we make substantial changes to the uses and disclosures of protected health information that must be described in the notice. Unlike the proposed rule, we do not include a model notice. We intend to develop further guidance on notice requirements prior to the compliance date of this rule. In this section of the final rule, we also refer to the covered entity’s privacy “practices,” rather than its “policies and procedures.” The purpose of this change in vocabulary is to clarify that a covered entity’s “policies and procedures” is a detailed documentation of all of the entity’s privacy practices as required under this rule, not just those described in the notice. For example, we require covered entities to have policies and procedures implementing the requirements for “minimum necessary” uses and disclosures of protected health information, but these policies and procedures need not be reflected in the entity’s notice. Similarly, we require covered entities to have policies and procedures for assuring individuals access to protected health information about them. While such policies and procedures will need to include documentation of the designated record sets subject to access, who is authorized to determine when information will be withheld from an individual, and similar details, the notice need only explain generally that individuals have the right to inspect and copy information about them, and tell individuals how to exercise that right.

    A covered entity that adopts and follows the notice content and distribution requirements described below will have provided adequate notice. However, the requirements for the content of the notice are not intended to be exclusive. As with the rest of the rule, we specify minimum requirements, not best practices. Covered entities may want to include more detail. We note that all federal agencies must still comply with the Privacy Act of 1974. This means that federal agencies that are covered entities or have covered health care components must comply with the notice requirements of the Privacy Act as well as those included in this rule.

    In addition, covered entities may want or be required to produce more than one notice in order to satisfy the notice content requirements under this rule. For example, a covered entity that conducts business in multiple states with different laws regarding the uses and disclosures that the covered entity is permitted to make without authorization may be required to produce a different notice for each state. A covered entity that conducts business both as part of an organized health care arrangement or affiliated covered entity and as an independent enterprise (e.g., a physician who sees patients through an on-call arrangement with a hospital and through an independent private practice) may want to adopt different privacy practices with respect to each line of business; such a covered entity would be required to produce a different notice describing the practices for each line of business. Covered entities must produce notices that accurately describe the privacy practices that are relevant to the individuals receiving the notice.

    Required Elements

    Plain Language

    As in the proposed rule, we require the notice to be written in plain language. A covered entity can satisfy the plain language requirement if it makes a reasonable effort to: organize material to serve the needs of the reader; write short sentences in the active voice, using “you” and other pronouns; use common, everyday words in sentences; and divide material into short sections.

    We do not require particular formatting specifications, such as easy-to-read design features (e.g., lists, tables, graphics, contrasting colors, and white space), type face, and font size. However, the purpose of the notice is to inform the recipients about their rights and how protected health information collected about them may be used or disclosed. Recipients who cannot understand the covered entity’s notice will miss important information about their rights under this rule and about how the covered entity is protecting health information about them. One of the goals of this rule is to create an environment of open communication and transparency with respect to the use and disclosure of protected health information. A lack of clarity in the notice could undermine this goal and create misunderstandings. Covered entities have an incentive to make their notice statements clear and concise. We believe that the more understandable the notice is, the more confidence the public will have in the covered entity’s commitment to protecting the privacy of health information.

    It is important that the content of the notice be communicated to all recipients and therefore we encourage the covered entity to consider alternative means of communicating with certain populations. We note that any covered entity that is a recipient of federal financial assistance is generally obligated under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to provide material ordinarily distributed to the public in the primary languages of persons with limited English proficiency in the recipients’ service areas. Specifically, this Title VI obligation provides that, where a significant number or proportion of the population eligible to be served or likely to be directly affected by a federally assisted program needs service or information in a language other than English in order to be effectively informed of or participate in the program, the recipient shall take reasonable steps, considering the scope of the program and the size and concentration of such population, to provide information in languages appropriate to such persons. For covered entities not subject to Title VI, the Title VI standards provide helpful guidance for effectively communicating the content of their notices to non-English speaking populations.

    We also encourage covered entities to be attentive to the needs of individuals who cannot read. For example, an employee of the covered entity could read the notice to individuals upon request or the notice could be incorporated into a video presentation that is played in the waiting area.

    Header

    Unlike the proposed rule, covered entities must include prominent and specific language in the notice that indicates the importance of the notice. This is the only specific language we require covered entities to include in the notice. The header must read, “THIS NOTICE DESCRIBES HOW MEDICAL INFORMATION ABOUT YOU MAY BE USED AND DISCLOSED AND HOW YOU CAN GET ACCESS TO THIS INFORMATION. PLEASE REVIEW IT CAREFULLY.”

    Uses and Disclosures

    We proposed to require covered entities to describe in plain language the uses and disclosures of protected health information, and the covered entity’s policies and procedures with respect to such uses and disclosures, that the health plan or covered provider expected to make without individual authorization. The covered provider or health plan would have had to distinguish between those uses and disclosures required by law and those permitted but not required by law.

    We also proposed to require covered health care providers and health plans to state in the notice that all other uses and disclosures would be made only with the individual’s authorization and that such authorization could be revoked. The notice would also have been required to state that the individual could request restrictions on certain uses and disclosures and that the covered entity would not be required to agree to such a request.

    We significantly modify these requirements in the final rule. Covered entities must describe all uses and disclosures of protected health information that they are permitted or required to make under this rule without authorization, including those uses and disclosures subject to the consent requirements under § 164.506. If other applicable law prohibits or materially limits the covered entity’s ability to make any uses or disclosures that would otherwise be permitted under the rule, the covered entity must describe only the uses and disclosures permitted under the more stringent law.

    Covered entities must separately describe each purpose for which they are permitted to use or disclose protected health information under this rule without authorization, and must do so in sufficient detail to place the individual on notice of those uses and disclosures. With respect to uses and disclosures to carry out treatment, payment, and health care operations, the description must include at least one example of the types of uses and disclosures that the covered entity is permitted to make. This requirement is intended to inform individuals of all the uses and disclosures that the covered entity is legally required or permitted to make under applicable law, even if the covered entity does not anticipate actually making such uses and disclosures. We do not require covered entities to distinguish in their notices between those uses and disclosures required by law and those permitted but not required by law.

    Unlike the proposed rule, we additionally require covered entities that wish to contact individuals for any of the following activities to list these activities in the notice: providing appointment reminders, describing or recommending treatment alternatives, providing information about health-related benefits and services that may be of interest to the individual, or soliciting funds to benefit the covered entity. If the covered entity does not include these statements in its notice, it is prohibited from using or disclosing protected health information for these activities without authorization. See § 164.502(i).

    In addition, if a group health plan, or a health insurance issuer or HMO with respect to a group health plan, wants the option to disclose protected health information to a group health plan sponsor without authorization as permitted under § 164.504(f), the group health plan, health insurance issuer or HMO must describe that practice in its notice.

    As in the proposed rule, the notice must state that all other uses and disclosures will be made only with the individual’s authorization and that the individual has the right to revoke such authorization.

    We anticipate this requirement will lead to significant standardization of the notice. This language could be the same for every covered entity of a particular type within a state, territory, or other locale. We encourage states, state professional associations, and other organizations to develop model language to assist covered entities in preparing their notices.

    Individual Rights

    As in the proposed rule, covered entities must describe individuals’ rights under the rule and how individuals may exercise those rights with respect to the covered entity. Covered entities must describe each of the following rights, as provided under the rule: the right to request restrictions on certain uses and disclosures, including a statement that the covered entity is not required to agree to a requested restriction (§ 164.522(a)); the right to receive confidential communications of protected health information (§ 164.522(b)); the right to inspect and copy protected health information (§ 164.524); the right to amend protected health information (§ 164.526); and the right to an accounting of disclosures of protected health information (§ 164.528). We additionally require the notice to describe the right of an individual, including an individual that has agreed to receive the notice electronically, to obtain a paper copy of the notice upon request.

    Covered Entity’s Duties

    As in the proposed rule, covered entities must state in the notice that they are required by law to maintain the privacy of protected health information, to provide a notice of their legal duties and privacy practices, and to abide by the terms of the notice currently in effect. In the final rule, we additionally require the covered entity, if it wishes to reserve the right to change its privacy practices and apply the revised practices to protected health information previously created or received, to make a statement to that effect and describe how it will provide individuals with a revised notice. (See below for a more detailed discussion of a covered entity’s responsibilities when it changes its privacy practices.)

    Complaints

    As in the proposed rule, a covered entity’s notice must inform individuals about how they can lodge complaints with the covered entity if they believe their privacy rights have been violated. See § 164.530(d) and the corresponding preamble discussion for the requirements on covered entities for receiving complaints. The notice must also state that individuals may file complaints with the Secretary. In the final rule, we additionally require the notice to include a statement that the individual will not suffer retaliation for filing a complaint.

    Contact

    As in the proposed rule, the notice must identify a point of contact where the individual can obtain additional information about any of the matters identified in the notice.

    Effective Date

    The notice must include the date the notice went into effect, rather than the proposed requirement to include the date the notice was produced. The effective date cannot be earlier than the date on which the notice was first printed or otherwise published. Covered entities may wish to highlight or otherwise emphasize any material modifications that it has made, in order to help the individual recognize such changes.

    Optional Elements

    As described above, we proposed to require covered entities to describe the uses and disclosures of protected health information that the covered entity in fact expected to make without the individual’s authorization. We did not specify any optional elements.

    While the final rule requires covered entities to describe all of the types of uses and disclosures permitted or required by law (not just those that the covered entity intends to make), we also permit and encourage covered entities to include optional elements that describe the actual, more limited, uses and disclosures they intend to make without authorization. We anticipate that some covered entities will want to distinguish themselves on the basis of their more stringent privacy practices. For example, covered health care providers who routinely treat patients with particularly sensitive conditions may wish to assure their patients that, even though the law permits them to disclose information for a wide array of purposes, the covered health care provider will only disclose information in very specific circumstances, as required by law, and to avert a serious and imminent threat to health or safety. A covered entity may not include statements in the notice that purport to limit the entity’s ability to make uses or disclosures that are required by law or necessary to avert a serious and imminent threat to health or safety.

    As described above, if the covered entity wishes to reserve the right to change its privacy practices with respect to the more limited uses and disclosures and apply the revised practices to protected health information previously created or received, it must make a statement to that effect and describe how it will provide individuals with a revised notice. (See below for a more detailed discussion of a covered entity’s responsibilities when it changes its privacy practices.)

    Revisions to the Notice

    We proposed to require a covered entity to adhere to the terms of its notice, and would have permitted it to change its information policies and procedures at any time. We would have required covered health care providers and health plans to update the notice to reflect material changes to the information policies and procedures described in the notice. Changes to the notice would have applied to all protected health information held by the covered entity, including information collected under prior notices. That is, we would not have require covered entities to segregate their records according to the notice in effect at the time the record was created. We proposed to prohibit covered entities from implementing a change to an information policy or procedure described in the notice until the notice was updated to reflect the change, unless a compelling reason existed to make a use or disclosure or take other action that the notice would not have permitted. In these situations, we proposed to require covered entities to document the compelling reason and, within 30 days of the use, disclosure, or other action, change its notice to permit the action.

    As in the proposed rule, covered entities are required to adhere to the terms of the notice currently in effect. See § 164.502(i). When a covered entity materially changes any of the uses or disclosures, the individual’s rights, the covered entity’s legal duties, or other privacy practices described in its notice, it must promptly revise its notice accordingly. See § 164.520(b)(3). (Pursuant to § 164.530(i), it must also revise its policies and procedures.) Except when required by law, a material change to any term in the notice may not be implemented prior to the effective date of the notice in which such material change is reflected. In the final rule, however, we revise the circumstances under and extent to which the covered entity may revise the practices stated in the notice and apply the new practices to protected health information it created or received under prior notice.

    Under § 164.530(i), a covered entity that wishes to change its practices over time without segregating its records according to the notice in effect at the time the records were created must reserve the right to do so in its notice. For example, a covered hospital that states in its notice that it will only make public health disclosures required by law, and that does not reserve the right to change this practice, is prohibited from making any discretionary public health disclosures of protected health information created or received during the effective period of that notice. If the covered hospital wishes at some point in the future to make discretionary disclosures for public health purposes, it must revise its notice to so state, and must segregate its records so that protected health information created or received under the prior notice is not disclosed for discretionary public health purposes. This hospital may then make discretionary public health disclosures of protected health information created or received after the effective date of the revised notice.

    If a second covered hospital states in its notice that it will only make public health disclosures required by law, but does reserve the right to change its practices, it is prohibited from making any discretionary public health disclosures of protected health information created or received during the effective period of that notice. If this hospital wishes at some point in the future to make discretionary disclosures for public health purposes, it must revise its notice to so state, but need not segregate its records. As of the effective date of the revised notice, it may disclose any protected health information, including information created or received under the prior notice, for discretionary public health purposes.

    Section 164.530(i) and the corresponding discussion in this preamble describes requirements for revision of a covered entity’s privacy policies and procedures, including the privacy practices reflected in its notice.

     

    HHS Response to Comments Received from Original Rulemaking
    Notice of Privacy Practices: Content of the Notice

     

    Note: HHS Response to Comments Received is the same as for § 164.520(a)

    Comment: Many commenters supported the proposal to require covered entities to produce a notice of information practices. They stated that such notice would improve individuals’ understanding of how their information may be used and disclosed and would help to build trust between individuals and covered entities. A few comments, however, argued that the notice requirement would be administratively burdensome and expensive without providing significant benefit to individuals.

    Response: We retain the requirement for covered health care providers and health plans to produce a notice of information practices. We additionally require health care clearinghouses that create or receive protected health information other than as a business associate of another covered entity to produce a notice. We believe the notice will provide individuals with a clearer understanding of how their information may be used and disclosed and is essential to inform individuals of their privacy rights. The notice will focus individuals on privacy issues, and prompt individuals to have discussions about privacy issues with their health plans, health care providers, and other persons.

    The importance of providing individuals with notice of the uses and disclosures of their information and of their rights with respect to that information is well supported by industry groups, and is recognized in current state and federal law. The July 1977 Report of the Privacy Protection Study Commission recommended that “each medical-care provider be required to notify an individual on whom it maintains a medical record of the disclosures that may be made of information in the record without the individual’s express authorization.” The Commission also recommended that “an insurance institution... notify [an applicant or principal insured] as to: ... the types of parties to whom and circumstances under which information about the individual may be disclosed without his authorization, and the types of information that may be disclosed; [and] ... the procedures whereby the individual may correct, amend, delete, or dispute any resulting record about himself.” The Privacy Act (5 U.S.C. 552a) requires government agencies to provide notice of the routine uses of information the agency collects and the rights individuals have with respect to that information. In its report “Best Principles for Health Privacy,” the Health Privacy Working Group stated, “Individuals should be given notice about the use and disclosure of their health information and their rights with regard to that information.” The National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ Health Information Privacy Model Act requires carriers to provide a written notice of health information policies, standards, and procedures, including a description of the uses and disclosures prohibited and permitted by the Act, the procedures for authorizing and limiting disclosures and for revoking authorizations, and the procedures for accessing and amending protected health information.

    Some states require additional notice. For example, Hawaii requires health care providers and health plans, among others, to produce a notice of confidentiality practices, including a description of the individual’s privacy rights and a description of the uses and disclosures of protected health information permitted under state law without the individual’s authorization. (HRS section 323C-13)

    Today, health plan hand books and evidences of coverage include some of what is required to be in the notice. Industry and standard-setting organizations have also developed notice requirements. The National Committee for Quality Assurance accreditation guidelines state that an accredited managed care organization “communicates to prospective members its policies and practices regarding the collection, use, and disclosure of medical information [and]... informs members... of its policies and procedures on... allowing members access to their medical records.” Standards of the American Society for Testing and Materials state, “Organizations and individuals who collect, process, handle, or maintain health information should provide individuals and the public with a notice of information practices.” They recommend that the notice include, among other elements, “a description of the rights of individuals, including the right to inspect and copy information and the right to seek amendments [and] a description of the types of uses and disclosures that are permitted or required by law without the individual’s authorization.” We build on this well-established principle in this final rule.

    Comment: We received many comments on the model notice provided in the proposed rule. Some commenters argued that patients seeing similar documents would be less likely to become disoriented when examining a new notice. Other commenters, however, opposed the inclusion of a model notice or expressed concern about particular language included in the model. They maintained that a uniform model notice would never capture the varying practices of covered entities. Many commenters opposed requirements for a particular format or specific language in the notice. They stated that covered entities should be afforded maximum flexibility in fashioning their notices. Other commenters requested inclusion of specific language as a header to indicate the importance of the notice. A few commenters recommended specific formatting requirements, such as font size or type.

    Response: On the whole, we found commenters’ arguments for flexibility in the regulation more persuasive than those arguing for more standardization. We agree that a uniform notice would not capture the wide variation in information practices across covered entities. We therefore do not include a model notice in the final rule, and do not require inclusion of specific language in the notice (except for a standard header). We also do not require particular formatting. We do, however, require the notice to be written in plain language. (See above for guidance on writing documents in plain language.) We also agree with commenters that the notice should contain a standard header to draw the individual’s attention to the notice and facilitate the individual’s ability to recognize the notice across covered entities.

    We believe that post-publication guidance will be a more effective mechanism for helping covered entities design their notices than the regulation itself. After the rule is published, we can provide guidance on notice content and format tailored to different types of health plans and providers. We believe such specially designed guidance will be more useful that a one-size-fits-all model notice we might publish with this regulation.

    Comment: Commenters suggested that the rule should require that the notice regarding privacy practices include specific provisions related to health information of unemancipated minors.

    Response: Although we agree that minors and their parents should be made aware of practices related to confidentiality of protected health information of unemancipated minors, we do not require covered entities that treat minors or use their protected health information to include provisions in their notice that are not required of other covered entities. In general, the content of notice requirements in § 164.520(b) do not vary based on the status of the individual being served. We have decided to maintain consistency by declining to prescribe specific notice requirements for minors. The rule does permit a covered entity to provide individuals with notice of its policies and procedures with respect to anticipated uses and disclosures of protected health information (§ 164.520(b)(2)), and providers are encouraged to do so.

    Comment: Some commenters argued that covered entities should not be required to distinguish between those uses and disclosures that are required by law and those that are permitted by law without authorization, because these distinctions may not always be clear and will vary across jurisdictions. Some commenters maintained that simply stating that the covered entity would make all disclosures required by law would be sufficient. Other comments suggested that covered entities should be able to produce very broadly stated notices so that repeated revisions and mailings of those revisions would not be necessary.

    Response: While we believe that covered entities have an independent duty to understand the laws to which they are subject, we also recognize that it could be difficult to convey such legal distinctions clearly and concisely in a notice. We therefore eliminate the proposed requirement for covered entities to distinguish between those uses and disclosures that are required by and those that are permitted by law. We instead require that covered entities describe each purpose for which they are permitted or required to use or disclose protected health information under this rule and other applicable law without individual consent or authorization. Specifically, covered entities must describe the types of uses and disclosures they are permitted to make for treatment, payment, and health care operations. They must also describe each of the purposes for which the covered entity is permitted or required by this subpart to use or disclose protected health information without the individual’s written consent or authorization (even if they do not plan to make a permissive use or disclosure). We believe this requirement provides individuals with sufficient information to understand how information about them can be used and disclosed and to prompt them to ask for additional information to obtain a clearer understanding, while minimizing covered entities’ burden.

    A notice that stated only that the covered entity would make all disclosures required by law, as suggested by some of these commenters, would fail to inform individuals of the uses and disclosures of information about them that are permitted, but not required, by law. We clarify that each and every disclosure required by law need not be listed on the notice. Rather, the covered entity can include a general statement that disclosures required by law will be made.

    Comment: Some comments argued that the covered entity should not have to provide notice about uses and disclosures that are permitted under the rule without authorization. Other comments suggested that the notice should inform individuals about all of the uses and disclosures that may be made, with or without the individual’s authorization.

    Response: When the individual’s permission is not required for uses and disclosures of information, we believe providing the required notice is the most effective means of ensuring that individuals are aware of how information about them may be shared. The notice need not describe uses and disclosures for which the individual’s permission is required, because the individual will be informed of these at the time permission to use or disclose the information is requested.

    We additionally require covered entities, even those required to obtain the individual’s consent for use and disclosure of protected health information for treatment, payment, and health care operations, to describe those uses and disclosures in their notice. (See § 164.506 and the corresponding preamble discussion regarding consent requirements.) We require these uses and disclosures to be described in the notice in part in order to reduce the administrative burden on covered providers that are required to obtain consent. Rather than obtaining a new consent each time the covered provider’s information policies and procedures are materially revised, covered providers may revise and redistribute their notice. We also expect that the description of how information may be used to carry out treatment, payment, and health care operations in the notice will be more detailed than in the more general consent document.

    Comment: Some commenters argued that covered entities should not be required to provide notice of the right to request restrictions, because doing so would be burdensome to the covered entity and distracting to the individual; because individuals have the right whether they are informed of such right or not; and because the requirement would be unlikely to improve patient care.

    Response: We disagree. We believe that the ability of an individual to request restrictions is an important privacy right and that informing people of their rights improves their ability to exercise those rights. We do not believe that adding a sentence to the notice is burdensome to covered entities.

    Comment: We received comments supporting inclusion of a contact point in the notice, so that individuals will not be forced to make multiple calls to find someone who can assist them with the issues in the notice.

    Response: We retain the requirement, but clarify that the title of the contact person is sufficient. A person’s name is not required.

    Comment: Some commenters argued that we could facilitate compliance by requiring the notice to include the proposed requirement that covered entities use and disclose only the minimum necessary protected health information.

    Response: We do not agree that adding such a requirement would strengthen the notice. The purpose of the notice is to inform individuals of their privacy rights, and of the purposes for which protected health information about them may be used or disclosed. Informing individuals that covered entities may use and disclose only the minimum necessary protected health information for a purpose would not increase individuals’ understanding of their rights or the purposes for which information may be used or disclosed.

    Comment: A few commenters supported allowing covered entities to apply changes in their information practices to protected health information obtained prior to the change. They argued that requiring different protections for information obtained at different times would be inefficient and extremely difficult to administer. Some comments supported requiring covered entities to state in the notice that the information policies and procedures are subject to change.

    Response: We agree. In the final rule, we provide a mechanism by which covered entities may revise their privacy practices and apply those revisions to protected health information they already maintain. We permit, but do not require, covered entities to reserve the right to change their practices and apply the revised practices to information previously created or obtained. If a covered entity wishes to reserve this right, it must make a statement to that effect in its notice. If it does not make such a statement, the covered entity may still revise its privacy practices, but it may apply the revised practices only to protected health information created or obtained after the effective date of the notice in which the revised practices are reflected. See § 164.530(i) and the corresponding preamble discussion of requirements regarding changes to information policies and procedures.

    Comment: Some commenters requested clarification of the term “material changes” so that entities will be comfortable that they act properly after making changes to their information practices. Some comments stated that entities should notify individuals whenever a new category of disclosures to be made without authorization is created.

    Response: The concept of “material change” appears in other notice laws, such as the ERISA requirements for summary plan descriptions. We therefore retain the “materiality” condition for revision of notices, and encourage covered entities to draw on the concept as it has developed through those other laws. We agree that the addition of a new category of use or disclosure of health information that may be made without authorization would likely qualify as a material change.

    Comment: We proposed to permit covered entities to implement revised policies and procedures without first revising the notice if a compelling reason existed to do so. Some commenters objected to this proposal because they were concerned that the “compelling reason” exception would give covered entities broad discretion to engage in post hoc violations of its own information practices.

    Response: We agree and eliminate this provision. Covered entities may not implement revised information policies and procedures before properly documenting the revisions and updating their notice. See § 164.530(i). Because in the final rule we require the notice to include all disclosures that may be made, not only those the covered entity intends to make, we no longer need this provision to accommodate emergencies.

    Comment: Some comments suggested that we require covered entities to maintain a log of all past notices, with changes from the previous notice highlighted. They further suggested we require covered entities to post this log on their web sites.

    Response: In accordance with § 164.530(j)(2), a covered entity must retain for six years a copy of each notice it issues. We do not require highlighting of changes to the notice or posting of prior notices, due to the associated administrative burdens and the complexity such a requirement would build into the notice over time. We encourage covered entities, however, to make such materials available upon request.

    Comment: Several commenters requested clarification about when, relative to the compliance date, covered entities are required to produce their notice. One commenter suggested that covered entities be allowed a period not less than 180 days after adoption of the final rule to develop and distribute the notice. Other comments requested that the notice compliance date be consistent with other HIPAA regulations.

    Response: We require covered entities to have a notice available upon request as of the compliance date of this rule (or the compliance date of the covered entity if such date is later). See § 164.534 and the corresponding preamble discussion of the compliance date.

    Comment: Some commenters suggested that covered entities, particularly covered health care providers, should be required to discuss the notice with individuals. They argued that posting a notice or otherwise providing the notice in writing may not achieve the goal of informing individuals of how their information will be handled, because some individuals may not be literate or able to function at the reading level used in the notice. Others argued that entities should have the flexibility to choose alternative modes of communicating the information in the notice, including voice disclosure. In contrast, some commenters were concerned that requirements to provide the notice in plain language or in languages other than English would be overly burdensome.

    Response: We require covered entities to write the notice in plain language so that the average reader will be able to understand the notice. We encourage, but do not require, covered entities to consider alternative means of communicating with certain populations. We note that any covered entity that is a recipient of federal financial assistance is generally obligated under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to provide material ordinarily distributed to the public in the primary languages of persons with limited English proficiency in the recipients’ service areas. While we believe the notice will prompt individuals to initiate discussions with their health plans and health care providers about the use and disclosure of health information, we believe this should be a matter left to each individual and that requiring covered entities to initiate discussions with each individual would be overly burdensome.

    Comment: Some commenters suggested that covered entities, particularly health plans, should be permitted to distribute their notice in a newsletter or other communication with individuals.

    Response: We agree, so long as the notice is sufficiently separate from other important documents. We therefore prohibit covered entities from combining the notice in a single document with either a consent (§ 164.506) or an authorization (§ 164.508), but do not otherwise prohibit covered entities from including the notice in or with other documents the covered entity shares with individuals.

    Comment: Some comments suggested that covered entities should not be required to respond to requests for the notice from the general public. These comments indicated that the requirement would place an undue burden on covered entities without benefitting individuals.

    Response: We proposed that the notice be publicly available so that individuals may use the notice to compare covered entities’ privacy practices and to select a health plan or health care provider accordingly. We therefore retain the proposed requirement for covered entities to provide the notice to any person who requests a copy, including members of the general public.

    Comment: Many commenters argued that the distribution requirements for health plans should be less burdensome. Some suggested requiring distribution upon material revision, but not every three years. Some suggested that health plans should only be required to distribute their notice annually or upon re-enrollment. Some suggested that health plans should only have to distribute their notice upon initial enrollment, not re-enrollment. Other commenters supported the proposed approach.

    Response: We agree that the notice distribution requirements for health plans can be less burdensome than in the NPRM while still being effective. In the final rule, we reduce health plans’ distribution burden in several ways. First, we require health plans to remind individuals every three years of the availability of the notice and of how to obtain a copy of the notice, rather than requiring the notice to be distributed every three years as proposed. Second, we clarify that health plans only have to distribute the notice to new enrollees on enrollment, not to current members of the health plan upon re-enrollment. Third, we specifically allow all covered entities to distribute the notice electronically in accordance with § 164.520(c)(3).

    We retain the requirement for health plans to distribute the notice within 60 days of a material revision. We believe the revised distribution requirements will ensure that individuals are adequately informed of health plans’ information practices and any changes to those procedures, without unduly burdening health plans.

    Comment: Many commenters argued that health plans should not be required to distribute their notice to every person covered by the plan. They argued that distributing the notice to every family member would be unnecessarily duplicative, costly, and difficult to administer. They suggested that health plans only be required to distribute the notice to the primary participant or to each household with one or more insured individuals.

    Response: We agree, and clarify in the final rule that a health plan may satisfy the distribution requirement by providing the notice to the named insured on behalf of the dependents of that named insured. For example, a group health plan may satisfy its notice requirement by providing a single notice to each covered employee of the plan sponsor. We do not require the group health plan to distribute the notice to each covered employee and to each covered dependent of those employees.

    Comment: Many comments requested clarification about health plans’ ability to distribute the notice via other entities. Some commenters suggested that group health plans should be able to satisfy the distribution requirement by providing copies of the notice to plan sponsors for delivery to employees. Others requested clarification that covered health care providers are only required to distribute their own notice and that health plans should be prohibited from using their affiliated providers to distribute the health plan’s notice.

    Response: We require health plans to distribute their notice to individuals covered by the health plan. Health plans may elect to hire or otherwise arrange for others, including group health plan sponsors and health care providers affiliated with the health plan, to carry out this distribution. We require covered providers to distribute only their own notices, and neither require nor prohibit health plans and health care providers from devising whatever arrangements they find suitable to meet the requirements of this rule. However, if a covered entity arranges for another person or entity to distribute the covered entity’s notice on its behalf and individuals do not receive such notice, the covered entity would be in violation of the rule.

    Comment: Some comments stated that covered providers without direct patient contact, such as clinical laboratories, might not have sufficient patient contact information to be able to mail the notice. They suggested we require or allow such providers to form agreements with referring providers or other entities to distribute notices on their behalf or to include their practices in the referring entity’s own notice.

    Response: We agree with commenters’ concerns about the potential administrative and financial burdens of requiring covered providers that have indirect treatment relationships with individuals, such as clinical laboratories, to distribute the notice. Therefore, we require these covered providers to provide the notice only upon request. In addition, these covered providers may elect to reach agreements with other entities distribute their notice on their behalf, or to participate in an organized health care arrangement that produces a joint notice. See § 164.520(d) and the corresponding preamble discussion of joint notice requirements.

    Comment: Some commenters requested that covered health care providers be permitted to distribute their notice prior to an individual’s initial visit so that patients could review the information in advance of the visit. They suggested that distribution in advance would reduce the amount of time covered health care providers’ staff would have to spend explaining the notice to patients in the office. Other comments argued that providers should distribute their notice to patients at the time the individual visits the provider, because providers lack the administrative infrastructure necessary to develop and distribute mass communications and generally have difficulty identifying active patients.

    Response: In the final rule, we clarify that covered providers with direct treatment relationships must provide the notice to patients no later than the first service delivery to the patient after the compliance date. For the reasons identified by these commenters, we do not require covered providers to send their notice to the patient in advance of the patient’s visit. We do not prohibit distribution in advance, but only require distribution to the patient as of the time of the visit. We believe this flexibility will allow each covered provider to develop procedures that best meet its and its patients’ needs.

    Comment: Some comments suggested that covered providers should be required to distribute the notice as of the compliance date. They noted that if the covered provider waited to distribute the notice until first service delivery, it would be possible (pursuant to the rule) for a use or disclosure to be made without the individual’s authorization, but before the individual receives the notice.

    Response: Because health care providers generally lack the administrative infrastructure necessary to develop and distribute mass communications and generally have difficulty identifying active patients, we do not require covered providers to distribute the notice until the first service delivery after the compliance date. We acknowledge that this policy allows uses and disclosure of health information without individuals’ consent or authorization before the individual receives the notice. We require covered entities, including covered providers, to have the notice available upon request as of the compliance date of the rule. Individuals may request a copy of the notice from their provider at any time.

    Comment: Many commenters were concerned with the requirement that covered providers post their notice. Some commenters suggested that covered hospital-based providers should be able to satisfy the distribution requirements by posting their notice in multiple locations at the hospital, rather than handing the notice to patients - particularly with respect to distribution after material revisions have been made. Some additionally suggested that these covered providers should have copies of the notice available on site. Some commenters emphasized that the notice must be clear and conspicuous to give individuals meaningful and effective notice of their rights. Other commenters noted that posting the notice will not inform former patients who no longer see the provider.

    Response: We clarify in the final rule that the requirement to post a notice does not substitute for the requirement to give individuals a notice or make notices available upon request. Covered providers with direct treatment relationships, including covered hospitals, must give a copy of the notice to the individual as of first service delivery after the compliance date. After giving the individual a copy of the notice as of that first visit, the covered provider has no other obligation to actively distribute the notice. We believe it is unnecessarily burdensome to require covered providers to mail the notice to all current and former patients each time the notice is revised, because unlike health plans, providers may have a difficult time identifying active patients. All individuals, including those who no longer see the covered provider, have the right to receive a copy of the notice on request.

    If the covered provider maintains a physical delivery site, it must also post the notice (including revisions to the notice) in a clear and prominent location where it is reasonable to expect individuals seeking service from the covered provider to be able to read the notice. The covered provider must also have the notice available on site for individuals to be able to request and take with them.

    Comment: Some comments requested clarification about the distribution requirements for a covered entity that is a health plan and a covered health care provider.

    Response: Under § 164.504(g), discussed above, covered entities that conduct multiple types of covered functions, such as the kind of entities described in the above comments, are required to comply with the provisions applicable to a particular type of health care function when acting in that capacity. Thus, in the example described above, the covered entity is required by § 164.504(g) to follow the requirements for health plans with respect to its actions as a health plan and to follow the requirements for health care providers with respect to its actions as a health care provider.

    Comment: We received many comments about the ability of covered entities to distribute their notices electronically. Many commenters suggested that we permit covered entities to distribute the notice electronically, either via a web site or e-mail. They argued that covered entities are increasingly using electronic technology to communicate with patients and otherwise administer benefits. They also noted that other regulations permit similar documents, such as ERISA-required summary plan descriptions, to be delivered electronically. Some commenters suggested that electronic distribution should be permitted unless the individual specifically requests a hard copy or lacks electronic access. Some argued that entities should be able to choose a least-cost alternative that allows for periodic changes without excessive mailing costs. A few commenters suggested requiring covered entities to distribute notices electronically.

    Response: We clarify in the final rule that covered entities may elect to distribute their notice electronically, provided the individual agrees to receiving the notice electronically and has not withdrawn such agreement. We do not require any particular form of agreement. For example, a covered provider could ask an individual at the time the individual requests a copy of the notice whether she prefers to receive it in hard copy or electronic form. A health plan could ask an individual applying for coverage to provide an e-mail address where the health plan can send the individual information. If the individual provides an e-mail address, the health plan can infer agreement to obtain information electronically.

    An individual who has agreed to receive the notice electronically, however, retains the right to request a hard copy of the notice. This right must be described in the notice. In addition, if the covered entity knows that electronic transmission of the notice has failed, the covered entity must produce a hard copy of the notice. We believe this provision allows covered entities flexibility to provide the notice in the form that best meets their needs without compromising individuals’ right to adequate notice of covered entities’ information practices.

    We note that covered entities may also be subject to the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act. This rule is not intended to alter covered entities’ requirements under that Act.

    Comment: Some commenters were concerned that covered providers with “face-to-face” patient contact would have a competitive disadvantage against covered internet-based providers, because the face-to-face providers would be required to distribute the notice in hard copy while internet-based providers could satisfy the requirement by requiring review of the notice on the web site before processing an order. They suggested allowing face-to-face covered providers to satisfy the distribution requirement by asking patients to review the notice posted on site.

    Response: We clarify in the final rule that covered health care providers that provide services to individuals over the internet have direct treatment relationships with those individuals. Covered internet-based providers, therefore, must distribute the notice at the first service delivery after the compliance date by automatically and contemporaneously providing the notice electronically in response to the individual’s first request for service, provided the individual agrees to receiving the notice electronically.

    Even though we require all covered entity web sites to post the entity’s notice prominently, we note that such posting is not sufficient to meet the distribution requirements. A covered internet-based provider must send the notice electronically at the individual’s first request for service, just as other covered providers with direct treatment relationships must give individuals a copy of the notice as of the first service delivery after the compliance date.

    We do not intend to create competitive advantages among covered providers. A web-based and a non-web-based covered provider each have the same alternatives available for distribution of the notice. Both types of covered providers may provide either a paper copy or an electronic copy of the notice.

    Comment: We received several comments suggesting that some covered entities should be exempted from the notice requirement or permitted to combine notices with other covered entities. Many comments argued that the notice requirement would be burdensome for hospital-based physicians and result in numerous, duplicative notices that would be meaningless or confusing to patients. Other comments suggested that multiple health plans offered through the same employer should be permitted to produce a single notice.

    Response: We retain the requirement for all covered health care providers and health plans to produce a notice of information practices. Health care clearinghouses are required to produce a notice of information practices only to the extent the clearinghouse creates or receives protected health information other than as a business associate of a covered entity. See § 164.500(b)(2). Two other types of covered entities are not required to produce a notice: a correctional institution that is a covered entity and a group health plan that provides benefits only through one or more contracts of insurance with health insurance issuers or HMOs.

    We clarify in § 164.504(d), however, that affiliated covered entities under common ownership or control may designate themselves as a single covered entity for purposes of this rule. An affiliated covered entity is only required to produce a single notice.

    In addition, covered entities that participate in an organized health care arrangement - which could include hospitals and their associated physicians - may choose to produce a single, joint notice, if certain requirements are met. See § 164.501 and the corresponding preamble discussion of organized health care arrangements.

    We clarify that each covered entity included in a joint notice must meet the applicable distribution requirements. If any one of the covered entities, however, provides the notice to a given individual, the distribution requirement with respect to that individual is met for all of the covered entities included in the joint notice. For example, a covered hospital and its attending physicians may elect to produce a joint notice. When an individual is first seen at the hospital, the hospital must provide the individual with a copy of the joint notice. Once the hospital has done so, the notice distribution requirement for all of the attending physicians that provide treatment to the individual at the hospital and that are included in the joint notice is satisfied.

    Comment: We solicited and received comments on whether to require covered entities to obtain the individual’s signature on the notice. Some commenters suggested that requiring a signature would convey the importance of the notice, would make it more likely that individuals read the notice, and could have some of the same benefits of a consent. They noted that at least one state already requires entities to make a reasonable effort to obtain a signed notice. Other comments noted that the signature would be useful for compliance and risk management purposes because it would document that the individual had received the notice.

    The majority of commenters on this topic, however, argued that a signed acknowledgment would be administratively burdensome, inconsistent with the intent of the Administrative Simplification requirements of HIPAA, impossible to achieve for incapacitated individuals, difficult to achieve for covered entities that do not have direct contact with patients, inconsistent with other notice requirements under other laws, misleading to individuals who might interpret their signature as an agreement, inimical to the concept of permitting uses and disclosures without authorization, and an insufficient substitute for authorization.

    Response: We agree with the majority of commenters and do not require covered entities to obtain the individual’s signed acknowledgment of receipt of the notice. We believe that we satisfied most of the arguments in support of requiring a signature with the new policy requiring covered health care providers with direct treatment relationships to obtain a consent for uses and disclosures of protected health information to carry out treatment, payment, and health care operations. See § 164.506 and the corresponding preamble discussion of consent requirements. We note that this rule does not preempt other applicable laws that require a signed notice and does not prohibit a covered entity from requesting an individual to sign the notice.

    Comment: Some commenters supported requiring covered entities to adhere to their privacy practices, as described in their notice. They argued that the notice is meaningless if a covered entity does not actually have to follow the practices contained in its notice. Other commenters were concerned that the rule would prevent a covered entity from using or disclosing protected health information in otherwise lawful and legitimate ways because of an intentional or inadvertent omission from its published notice. Some of these commenters suggested requiring the notice to include a description of some or all disclosures that are required or permitted by law. Some commenters stated that the adherence requirement should be eliminated because it would generally inhibit covered entities’ ability to innovate and would be burdensome.

    Response: We agree that the value of the notice would be significantly diminished absent a requirement that covered entities adhere to the statements they make in their notices. We therefore retain the requirement for covered entities to adhere to the terms of the notice. See § 164.502(i).

    Many of these commenters’ concerns regarding a covered entity’s inability to use or disclose protected health information due to an intentional or inadvertent omission from the notice are addressed in our revisions to the proposed content requirements for the notice. Rather than require covered entities to describe only those uses and disclosures they anticipate making, as proposed, we require covered entities to describe all uses and disclosures they are required or permitted to make under the rule without the individual’s consent or authorization. We permit a covered entity to provide a statement that it will disclose protected health information that is otherwise required by law, as permitted in § 164.512(a), without requiring them to list all state laws that may require disclosure. Because the notice must describe all legally permissible uses and disclosures, the notice will not generally preclude covered entities from making any uses or disclosures they could otherwise make without individual consent or authorization. This change will also ensure that individuals are aware of all possible uses and disclosures that may occur without their consent or authorization, regardless of the covered entity’s current practices.

    We encourage covered entities, however, to additionally describe the more limited uses and disclosures they actually anticipate making in order to give individuals a more accurate understanding of how information about them will be shared. We expect that certain covered entities will want to distinguish themselves on the basis of their privacy protections. We note that a covered entity that chooses to exercise this option must clearly state that, at a minimum, the covered entity may make disclosures that are required by law and that are necessary to avert a serious and imminent threat to health or safety.