Technology integration has revolutionized how medical professionals operate in today’s healthcare landscape. Clinical applications like electronic health records and various systems for radiology, pharmacies, and laboratories have streamlined operations, enhancing mobility and efficiency within the medical workforce. 

Alongside these advancements come heightened security risks, emphasizing the critical need for compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Security Rule.

Healthcare providers now have access to various clinical applications and patient self-service tools offered by health plans. While these advancements drive efficiency, they also amplify potential security vulnerabilities. As healthcare evolves digitally, navigating these technological landscapes becomes inseparable from ensuring data security and privacy and effectively avoiding HIPAA security risks.

The HIPAA Security Rule Defined

The Security Standards for the Protection of Electronic Protected Health Information, also known as the Security Rule, sets forth a national set of security standards to protect certain health information that is held or transferred in electronic form. 

The Security Rule addresses the technical and non-technical safeguards in the Privacy Rule that covered entities must implement to secure individual Electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI). Within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforces the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules with compliance activities and civil monetary penalties.

Before the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996, no universally accepted security standards or requirements were in place to protect health information in the healthcare industry. As new technologies evolved, the healthcare industry started replacing paper processes with electronic information systems to pay claims, answer eligibility questions, share health information, and handle routine administrative and clinical functions.

What is the purpose of the HIPAA Security Rule?

The Security Rule helps protect individuals’ health information privacy while allowing covered entities to improve the quality and efficiency of patient care with technology. The rule was designed to be flexible and scalable, allowing covered entities to implement policies, procedures, and technologies based on their size, organizational structure, and risks to ePHI. 

So, it’s essential that covered entities carefully consider the impact when deciding which security measures to use to protect ePHI. Covered entities must continually review and modify their security measures in an ever-changing environment.

Who enforces the HIPAA Security Rule?

The enforcement of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Security Rule involves several key entities, each responsible for ensuring compliance and safeguarding Protected Health Information (PHI). The primary enforcers include:

  • Office for Civil Rights (OCR): A division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the OCR oversees compliance through investigations, audits, and penalties for non-compliance. It ensures that Covered Entities (CEs) and Business Associates (BAs) adhere to the Security Rule’s standards, encompassing access control, physical safeguards, and cybersecurity measures for ePHI.
  • Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS): Collaborating with the OCR, CMS oversees compliance among healthcare providers participating in Medicare and Medicaid programs, ensuring adherence to the HIPAA Security Rule’s requirements, including risk assessment and implementation of security policies.
  • State Attorneys General: Empowered to enforce the Rule and seek damages for affected state residents, they play a crucial role in addressing potential risks and unauthorized access to Individually Identifiable Health Information (IIHI).
  • Collaboration with Other Agencies: Various agencies, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the Department of Justice (DOJ), collaborate with OCR in specific situations, emphasizing device security, cybersecurity, and privacy breaches.

These entities collectively ensure compliance with the HIPAA Security Rule, emphasizing risk analysis and risk assessment and implementing stringent security policies and physical safeguards. 

Which covered entities are required to follow the HIPAA Security Rule?

HIPAA compliance under the Security Rule is slightly different for each covered entity due to its flexible and scalable nature. While this rule doesn’t designate specific types of security technology, encryption is one of the best practices recommended. This is because many HIPAA data breaches have involved the theft and loss of unencrypted devices. 

Plus, an increasing number of security incidents are resulting from cyberattacks. Encrypting protected data makes it unusable by unauthorized parties, regardless of the cause of the incident. Lost or stolen encrypted data is not considered a breach and must not be reported under HIPAA.

The increasing use of cloud services for data storage means that covered entities should seek third-party cloud security solutions that handle ePHI routinely. Covered entities should require security solution providers to sign a business associate agreement to remain HIPAA compliant.

Who is exempt from the HIPAA Security Rule?

The HIPAA Security Rule sets stringent security standards to protect ePHI, yet it’s crucial to understand who falls outside its scope. Not all entities or individuals are subject to these regulations. 

Covered entities and business associates under HIPAA are typically obligated to comply with the Security Rule’s provisions, which encompass access control, audit controls, transmission security, and integrity controls for electronic media containing personal health information.

However, some exemptions apply to certain entities or groups:

  • Providers Not Engaged in Electronic Transactions: Healthcare providers operating primarily through paper-based practices might be exempt from specific electronic-specific requirements like transmission security and access control.
  • Employers: Employers not directly involved in administering health plans are often exempt from complying with the HIPAA Security Rule.
  • Life Insurers, Employers, and Workers’ Compensation Carriers: When these entities function solely as insurers and not as healthcare providers or covered entities, they might not fall under the Security Rule’s purview.

Examples of administrative safeguards required by the HIPAA Security Rule

The Security Rule requires covered entities to maintain administrative, technical, and physical safeguards to protect ePHI.  Specifically, covered entities must:

  1. Ensure the confidentiality*, integrity, and availability of all ePHI they create, receive, maintain, or transmit;
  2. Identify and protect against reasonably anticipated threats to the security or integrity of the information;
  3. Protect against reasonably expected, impermissible uses or disclosures; and
  4. Ensure compliance by their workforce.

*The Security Rule defines “confidentiality” as ePHI is unavailable or disclosed to unauthorized persons.

The administrative safeguards include:

  • Security Management Process
  • Security Personnel
  • Information Access Management
  • Workforce Training and Management
  • Evaluation

Covered entities must adhere to the safeguards specified under the Security Rule, but certain implementation specifications within the standards are categorized as addressable while others are required. 

The required specifications must be implemented, and those designated as addressable are left to each covered entity to determine whether they are reasonable and appropriate for them. Otherwise, the covered entity may adopt an alternative measure to achieve the same result.

How to comply with the HIPAA Security Rule

Compliance with the HIPAA Security Rule demands a comprehensive approach to safeguarding ePHI. Here are essential steps to ensure compliance:

  1. Conduct a Risk Analysis and Assessment: Identify potential risks to ePHI through a thorough risk analysis. Regular risk assessments help in understanding vulnerabilities and developing mitigation strategies.
  2. Develop Security Policies and Procedures: Create and implement robust security policies and procedures tailored to your organization’s needs. This includes access controls, physical safeguards, device security, and cybersecurity measures.
  3. Provide Ongoing Training: Educate staff members about HIPAA rules, security policies, and procedures. Regular training ensures everyone understands their responsibilities in protecting patient information.
  4. Maintain Physical Safeguards: Secure physical access to areas where ePHI is stored or accessed. This involves controlling access to hardware and ensuring secure disposal of sensitive information.
  5. Develop a Contingency Plan: Prepare for potential breaches or emergencies by having a contingency plan in place. This ensures swift and effective response to incidents, reducing the impact on patient information.

ZenGRC Can Help You Maintain Your Compliance

ZenGRC is a robust solution designed to fortify compliance with the HIPAA Security Rule.

By leveraging ZenGRC, your compliance efforts become significantly streamlined, guaranteeing strict adherence to the HIPAA Security Rule. 

This commitment ensures the integrity and security of patient information remains at the forefront of your organization’s operations. For more, schedule a demo today!