Standards for Privacy of Individually Identifiable Health Information. Final Privacy Rule Preamble.. Requiring That a Complainant Exhaust the Covered Entity's Internal Complaint Process Prior to Filing a Complaint with the Secretary


Comment: A number of commenters, primarily health plans, suggested that individuals should not be permitted to file a complaint with the Secretary until they exhaust the covered entity's own complaint process. Commenters stated that covered entities should have a certain period of time, such as ninety days, to correct the violation. Some commenters asserted that providing for filing a complaint with the Secretary will be very expensive for both the public and private sectors of the health care industry to implement. Other commenters suggested requiring the Secretary to inform the covered entity of any complaint it has received and not initiate an investigation or "take enforcement action" before the covered entity has time to address the complaint.

Response: We have decided, for a number of reasons, to retain the approach as presented in the proposed rule. First, we are concerned that requiring that complainants first notify the covered entity would have a chilling effect on complaints. In the course of investigating individual complaints, the Secretary will often need to reveal the identity of the complainant to the covered entity. However, in the investigation of cases of systemic violations and some individual violations, individual names may not need to be identified. Under the approach suggested by these commenters, the covered entity would learn the names of all persons who file complaints with the Secretary. Some individuals might feel uncomfortable or fear embarrassment or retaliation revealing their identity to the covered entity they believe has violated the regulation. Individuals may also feel they are being forced to enter into negotiations with this entity before they can file a complaint with the Secretary.

Second, because some potential complainants would not bring complaints to the covered entity, possible violations might not become known to the Secretary and might continue. Third, the delay in the complaint coming to the attention of the Secretary because of the time allowed for the covered entity to resolve the complaint may mean that significant violations are not addressed expeditiously. Finally, the process proposed by these commenters is arguably unnecessary because an individual who believes that an agreement can be reached with the covered entity, can, through the entity's internal complaint process or other means, seek resolution before filing a complaint with the Secretary.

Our approach is consistent with other laws and regulations protecting individual rights. None of the civil rights laws enforced by the Secretary require a complainant to provide any notification to the entity that is alleged to have engaged in discrimination (e.g., Americans with Disabilities Act, section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and the Age Discrimination Act). The concept of "exhaustion" is used in laws that require individuals to pursue administrative remedies, such as that provided by a governmental agency, before bringing a court action. Under HIPAA, individuals do not have a right to court action.

Some commenters seemed to believe that the Secretary would pursue enforcement action without notifying the covered entity. It has been the Secretary's practice in investigating cases under other laws, such as various civil rights laws, to inform entities that we have received a complaint against them and to seek early resolution if possible. In enforcing the privacy rule, the Secretary will generally inform the covered entity of the nature of any complaints it has received against the entity. (There may be situations where information is withheld to protect the privacy interests of the complainant or others or where revealing information would impede the investigation of the covered entity.) The Secretary will also generally afford the entity an opportunity to share information with the Secretary that may result in an early resolution. Our approach will be to seek informal resolution of complaints whenever possible, which includes allowing covered entities a reasonable amount of time to work with the Secretary to come into compliance before initiating action to seek civil monetary penalties.