Standards for Privacy of Individually Identifiable Health Information. Final Privacy Rule Preamble.. 2. State Laws


The second body of privacy protections is found in a complex, and often confusing, myriad of state laws and requirements. To determine whether or not the final rule would preempt a state law, first we identified the relevant laws, and second, we addressed whether state or federal law provides individuals with greater privacy protection.

Identifying the relevant state statutes: Health information privacy provisions can be found in laws applicable to many issues including insurance, worker's compensation, public health, birth and death records, adoptions, education, and welfare. In many cases, state laws were enacted to address a specific situation, such as the reporting of HIV/AIDS, or medical conditions that would impair a person's ability to drive a car. For example, Florida has over 60 laws that apply to protected health information. According to the Georgetown Privacy Project, 39 Florida is not unique. Every state has laws and regulations covering some aspect of medical information privacy. For the purpose of this analysis, we simply acknowledge the variation in state requirements.

We recognize that covered entities will need to learn the laws of their states in order to comply with such laws that are not contrary to the rule, or that are contrary to and more stringent than the rule. This analysis should be completed in the context of individual markets; therefore, we expect that professional associations or individual businesses will complete this task.

Recognizing the limits of our ability to effectively summarize state privacy laws, we discuss conclusions generated by the Georgetown University Privacy Project's report, The State of Health Privacy: An Uneven Terrain. The Georgetown report is among the most comprehensive examination of state health privacy laws currently published, although it is not exhaustive. The report, which was completed in July 1999, is based on a 50-state survey.

To facilitate discussion, we have organized the analysis into two sections: access to health information and disclosure of health information. Our analysis is intended to suggest areas where the final rule appears to preempt various state laws; it is not designed to be a definitive or wholly comprehensive state-by-state comparison.

Access to Subject's Information: In general, state statutes provide individuals with some access to medical records about them. However, only a few states allow individuals access to health information held by all their health care providers and health plans. In 33 states, individuals may access their hospital and health facility records. Only 13 states guarantee individuals access to their HMO records, and 16 states provide individuals access to their medical information when it is held by insurers. Seven states have no statutory right of patient access; three states and the District of Columbia have laws that only assure individuals' right to access their mental health records. Only one state permits individuals access to records about them held by health care providers, but it excludes pharmacists from the definition of provider. Thirteen states grant individuals statutory right of access to pharmacy records.

The amount that entities are allowed to charge for copying of individuals' records varies widely from state to state. A study conducted by the American Health Information Management Association 40 found considerable variation in the amounts, structure, and combination of fees for search and retrieval, and the copying of the record.

In 35 states, there are laws or regulations that set a basis for charging individuals inspecting and copying fees. Charges vary not only by state, but also by the purpose of the request and the facility holding the health information. Also, charges vary by the number of pages and whether the request is for X-rays or for standard medical information.

Of the 35 states with laws regulating inspection and copying charges, seven states either do not allow charges for retrieval of records or require that the entity provide the first copy free of charge. Some states may prohibit hospitals from charging patients a retrieval and copying fee, but allow clinics to do so. Many states allow fee structures, while eleven states specify only that the record holder may charge "reasonable/actual costs."

According to the report by the Georgetown Privacy Project, among states that do grant access to patient records, the most common basis for denying individuals access is concern for the life and safety of the individual or others.

The amount of time an entity is given to supply the individual with his or her record varies widely. Many states allow individuals to amend or correct inaccurate health information, especially information held by insurers. However, few states provide the right to insert a statement in the record challenging the covered entity's information when the individual and entity disagree. 41

Disclosure of Health Information: State laws vary widely with respect to disclosure of individually identifiable health information. Generally, states have applied restrictions on the disclosure of health information either to specific entities or for specific health conditions. Only three state laws place broad limits on disclosure of individually identifiable health information without regard for policies and procedures developed by covered entities. Most states require patient authorization before an entity may disclose health information to certain recipients, but the patient often does not have an opportunity to object to any disclosures. 42

It is also important to point out that none of the states appear to offer individuals the right to restrict disclosure of their health information for treatment.

State statutes often have exceptions to requiring authorization before disclosure. The most common exceptions are for purposes of treatment, payment, or auditing and quality assurance functions. Restrictions on re-disclosure of individually identifiable health information also vary widely from state to state. Some states restrict the re-disclosure of health information, and others do not. The Georgetown report cites state laws that require providers to adhere to professional codes of conduct and ethics with respect to disclosure and re-disclosure of protected health information.

Most states have adopted specific measures to provide additional protections for health information regarding certain sensitive conditions or illnesses. The conditions and illnesses most commonly afforded added privacy protection are:

  • Information derived from genetic testing;
  • Communicable and sexually-transmitted diseases;
  • Mental health; and
  • Abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and sexual assault.

Some states place restrictions on releasing condition-specific health information for research purposes, while others allow release of information for research without the patient's authorization. States frequently require that researchers studying genetic diseases, HIV/AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases have different authorization and privacy controls than those used for other types of research. Some states require approval from an IRB or agreements that the data will be destroyed or identifiers removed at the earliest possible time. Another approach has been for states to require researchers to obtain sensitive, identifiable information from a state public health department. One state does not allow automatic release of protected health information for research purposes without notifying the subjects that their health information may be used in research and allowing them an opportunity to object to the use of their information. 43

Comparing state statutes to the final rule: The variability of state law regarding privacy of individually identifiable health information and the limitations of the applicability of many such laws demonstrates the need for uniformity and minimum standards for privacy protection. This regulation is designed to meet these goals while allowing stricter state laws to be enacted and remain effective. A comparison of state privacy laws with the final regulation highlights several of the rule's key implications:

• No state law requires covered entities to make their privacy and access policies available to patients. Thus, all covered entities that have direct contact with patients will be required by this rule to prepare a statement of their privacy protection and access policies. This necessarily assumes that entities have to develop procedures if they do not already have them in place.

• The rule will affect more entities than are covered or encompassed under many state laws.

• Among the three categories of covered entities, it appears that health plans will be the most significantly affected by the access provisions of the rule. Based on the Health Insurance Association of America (HIAA) data, 44 there are approximately 94.7 million non-elderly persons with private health insurance in the 35 states that do not provide patients a legal right to inspect and copy their records.

• Under the rule, covered entities will have to obtain an individual's authorization before they could use or disclose their information for purposes other than treatment, payment, and health care operations -- except in the situations explicitly defined as allowable disclosures without authorization. Although the final rule would establish a generally uniform disclosure and re-disclosure requirement for all covered entities, the entities that currently have the greatest ability and economic incentives to use and disclose protected health information for marketing services to both patients and health care providers without individual authorization.

• While the final rule appears to encompass many of the requirements found in current state laws, it also is clear that within state laws, there are many provisions that cover specific cases and health conditions. Certainly, in states that have no restrictions on disclosure, the rule will establish a baseline standard. But in states that do place conditions on the disclosure of protected health information, the rule may place additional requirements on covered entities.