The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, more commonly referred to as HIPAA, has been in effect for nearly two decades. In that time, no crisis has challenged the fabric of those regulations like the COVID-19 pandemic.
HIPAA exists to “provide privacy standards to protect patients’ medical records and other health information provided to health plans, doctors, hospitals and other health care providers.” It holds these providers and health plans accountable to meet these standards through fines and consequences that can range from $100 to $50,000 per violation (or per record), with a maximum penalty of $1.5 million per year for each violation.
The recent relaxations of such a tight framework of regulations are unprecedented. While the COVID-19 pandemic does not rule HIPAA void, the federal government has provided revised guidelines that allow for some information to be shared by hospitals in order to stop the spread of the disease. While the Department of Health and Human Services has repeated with each announcement that the relaxation of the enforcement of HIPAA regulations will end once the current public health crisis does, I think the privacy and availability of data will change forever.
The cost of data.
As privacy laws evolve in the wake of COVID-19, increased access to certain types of patient data will drive down the cost of data in general. This could be great news for patients’ wallets, because with the decrease in the cost of collecting and sharing data may come a decrease in the cost of receiving care.
EHR costs are in the billions of dollars. Privacy regulations make it difficult to acquire patient data, which drives up the cost of EHRs. But with the advent of Google and Apple’s health data focus, more affordable options to access important patient data are entering the mainstream. According to CB Insights, Google Health Vice President David Feinberg, MD, “is focusing his efforts on Google’s core expertise in search, looking to make it easier for doctors to search medical records and improve the quality of health-related search results for consumers across Google and YouTube.” I am hopeful that a more permanent relaxing of HIPAA regulations will pave the way for new players in the health technology and data arena, and that that will open doors for patients to access care at a lower cost.