Standards for Privacy of Individually Identifiable Health Information. Final Privacy Rule Preamble.. D. Baseline Privacy Protections


An analysis of the costs and benefits of the regulation requires a baseline from which to measure the regulation's effects. For some regulations, the baseline is relatively straightforward. For instance, an industry might widely use a particular technology, but a new regulation may require a different technology, which would not otherwise have been adopted by the industry. In this example, the old and widely used technology provides the baseline for measuring the effects of the regulation. The costs and the benefits are the difference between keeping the old technology and implementing the new technology.

Where the underlying technology and industry practices are rapidly changing, however, it can be far more difficult to determine the baseline and thereby measure the costs and benefits of a regulation. There is no simple way to know what technology industry would have chosen to introduce if the regulation had never existed, nor how industry practices would have evolved.

Today, the entities covered by the HIPAA privacy regulation are in the midst of a shift from primarily paper records to electronic records. As covered entities spend significant resources on hardware, software, and other information technology costs, questions arise about which of these costs are fairly attributable to the privacy regulations as opposed to costs that would have been expended even in the absence of the regulations. Industry practices generally are rapidly evolving, as described in more detail in Part I of this preamble. New technological or other measure taken to protect privacy are in part attributable to the expected expense of shifting to electronic medical records, rather than being solely attributable to the new regulations. In addition, the existence of privacy rules in other sectors of the economy help set a norm for what practices will be considered good practices for health information. The level of privacy protection that would exist in the health care sector, in the absence of regulations, thus would likely be affected by regulatory and related developments in other sectors. In short, it is therefore difficult to project a cost or benefits baseline for this rule.

The common security practice of using "firewalls" illustrates how each of the three baselines might apply. Under the first baseline, the full cost of implementing firewalls should be included in a Regulatory Impact Analysis for a rule that expects entities to have firewalls. Because current law has not required firewalls, a new rule expecting this security measure must include the full cost of creating firewalls. This approach, however, would seem to overstate the cost of such a regulation. Firewalls would seem to be an integral part of the decision to move to an on-line, electronic system of records. Firewalls are also being widely deployed by users and industries where no binding security or privacy regulations have been proposed.

Under the second baseline, the touchstone is the level of risk of security breaches for individually identifiable health information under current practices. There is quite possibly a greater risk of breach for an electronic system of records, especially where such records are accessible globally through the Internet, than for patient records dispersed among various doctors' offices in paper form. Using the second baseline, the costs of firewalls for electronic systems should not be counted as a cost of the regulation except where firewalls create greater security than existed under the previous, paper-based system.

Finally, the third baseline would require an estimate of the typical level of firewall protections that covered entities would adopt in the absence of regulation, and include in the Regulatory Impact Analysis only the costs that exceed what would otherwise have been adopted. For this analysis, the Department has generally assumed that the status quo would otherwise exist throughout the ten-year period (in a few areas we explicitly discuss likely changes). We made this decision for two reasons. First, predicting the level of change that would otherwise occur is highly problematic. Second, it is a "conservative" assumption-that is, any error will likely be an overstatement of the true costs of the regulation.

Privacy practices are most often shaped by professional organizations that publish ethical codes of conduct and by state law. On occasion, state laws defer to professional conduct codes. At present, where professional organizations and states have developed only limited guidelines for privacy practices, an entity may implement privacy practices independently. However, it is worth noting that changes in privacy protection continue to increase in various areas. For example, European Union countries may only send individually identifiable information to companies, including U.S. firms, that comply with their privacy standards, and the growing use of health data in other areas of commerce, such as finance and general commercial marketing, have also increased the demand for privacy in ways that were not of concern in the past.