HIPAA Technology and Clinical Research Guidance Library

Health Information Technology | General

1. Is a health information organization (HIO) covered by the HIPAA Privacy Rule?

Generally, no. The HIPAA Privacy Rule applies to health plans, health care clearinghouses, and health care providers that conduct covered transactions. The functions a HIO typically performs do not make it a health plan, health care clearinghouse, or covered health care provider. Thus, a HIO is generally not a HIPAA covered entity.

However, a HIO that performs certain functions or activities on behalf of, or provides certain services to, a covered entity which require access to PHI would be a business associate under the Privacy Rule. See 45 C.F.R. § 160.103 (definition of “business associate”). HIPAA covered entities must enter into contracts or other agreements with their business associates that require the business associates to safeguard and appropriately protect the privacy of protected health information. See 45 C.F.R. §§ 164.502(e), 164.504(e). (See also the relevant business associate requirements in the HIPAA Security Rule at 45 C.F.R. §§ 164.308(b), 164.314(a).) For instance, a HIO that manages the exchange of PHI through a network on behalf of multiple covered health care providers is a business associate of the covered providers, and thus, one or more business associate agreements would need to be in place between the covered providers and the HIO.

2. Can a health information organization (HIO) operate as a business associate of multiple covered entities participating in a networked environment?

Yes. A HIO can operate as a business associate of multiple covered entities participating in a networked environment. The HIPAA Privacy Rule does not prohibit an entity from acting as a business associate of multiple covered entities and performing functions or activities that involve access to protected health information for the collective benefit of the covered entities. In addition, the Privacy Rule would not require separate business associate agreements between each of the covered entities and the business associate. Rather, the Privacy Rule would permit the covered entities participating in a networked environment and the HIO to operate under a single business associate agreement that was executed by all participating covered entities and the common business associate.

3. What are some considerations in developing and implementing a business associate agreement with a health information organization (HIO)?

In general, the HIPAA Privacy Rule requires that the contract between a covered entity and its business associate establish the permitted and required uses and disclosures of protected health information (PHI) by the business associate, but provides that the contract may not authorize the business associate to use or disclose PHI in a manner that would violate the Privacy Rule. In addition, the contract must require the business associate to appropriately safeguard PHI. See 45 C.F.R. § 164.504(e). See also the relevant business associate requirements of the HIPAA Security Rule at 45 C.F.R. § 164.314(a). Given these required elements of a business associate agreement, covered entities participating in a networked environment with a HIO can use the business associate agreement as a tool to help shape the specific terms and conditions of the information exchange the HIO will manage, as well as the safeguards that will be in place to ensure information is protected and only shared appropriately.

While a business associate contract technically can authorize the business associate to make any number of uses and disclosures permitted under the Privacy Rule, the parties can, and likely would want to, further restrict in the contract what the HIO can and will do with PHI. Defining the permitted uses and disclosures by the HIO may depend on a number of factors, including the purposes of the information exchange through the network (e.g., for treatment purposes), how individual preferences and choice will be honored, as applicable, and any other legal obligations on covered entities and/or HIOs with respect to the PHI in the network. For instance, if the HIO will primarily manage the exchange of PHI among participating entities for treatment purposes, then the parties should, in the business associate agreement, define the HIO’s permitted uses and disclosures of PHI with those limited purposes in mind.

4. Can a health information organization (HIO), as a business associate, exchange protected health information (PHI) with another HIO acting as a business associate?

Yes, so long as the disclosure of PHI is authorized by the HIO’s business associate agreement and the information exchange would be permitted by the HIPAA Privacy Rule. For example, a HIO may disclose, on behalf of a primary care physician, PHI about an individual for treatment purposes in response to a query from another HIO, acting on behalf of a hospital at which the individual is a patient, unless, for instance, the primary care physician has agreed to the patient’s request to restrict such disclosures. Similarly, a HIO that is a business associate of two different covered entities may share PHI it receives from one covered entity with the other covered entity as permitted by the Privacy Rule and its business associate agreement, for example, for treatment purposes, subject to any applicable restrictions.

5. Can a health information organization (HIO) participate as part of an organized health care arrangement (OHCA)?

A HIO, by definition, cannot participate as part of an OHCA because the HIPAA Privacy Rule defines OHCA as an arrangement involving only health care providers or health plans, neither of which a HIO qualifies as. However, a HIO may be a business associate of an OHCA if the HIO performs functions or activities on behalf of the OHCA. See 45 C.F.R. § 160.103 (definitions of “organized health care arrangement” and “business associate”). For example, a hospital and the health care providers with staff privileges at the hospital are an OHCA for purposes of the Privacy Rule. To the extent such an arrangement uses a HIO for electronic health information exchange, the HIO would be a business associate of the OHCA.

6. Can a health information organization (HIO) participate as part of an affiliated covered entity?

A HIO generally is not a HIPAA covered entity and the HIPAA Privacy Rule allows only certain legally separate covered entities to designate themselves as a single affiliated covered entity for purposes of complying with the Privacy Rule. Thus, a HIO generally may not participate as part of an affiliated covered entity. See 45 C.F.R. § 164.105(b) for the requirements and conditions regarding affiliated covered entities.

The information presented in our library is for informational purposes only, they are not for implementation in operations. Please consult official HIPAA guidance documents for operational use.

This information was sourced from HIPAA FAQs for Professionals.

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