US Department of Health and Human Service (HHS)

Data privacy and security legislation and enforcement saw significant activity in 2018 and early 2019. McDermott’s 2018 Digital Health Year in Review: Focus on Data report – the first in a four-part series – highlights notable developments and guidance that health care providers, digital health companies and other health care industry stakeholders should navigate in 2019. Here, we summarize four key issues that stakeholders should watch in the coming year. For more in-depth discussion of these and other notable issues, access the full report.

  1. EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) enhances protections for certain personal data on an international scale. US-based digital health providers and vendors that either (a) offer health care or other services or monitor the behavior of individuals residing in the EU, or (b) process personal data on behalf of entities conducting such activities should be mindful of the GDPR’s potential applicability to their operations and take heed of any GDPR obligations, including, but not limited to, enhanced notice and consent requirements and data subject rights, as well as obligations to execute GDPR-compliant contracts with vendors processing personal data on their behalf.
  2. California passes groundbreaking data privacy law. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which takes effect on January 1, 2020, will regulate the collection, use and disclosure of personal information pertaining to California residents by for-profit businesses – even those that are not based in California – that meet one or more revenue or volume thresholds. Similar in substance to the GDPR, the CCPA gives California consumers more visibility and control over their personal information. The CCPA will affect clinical and other scientific research activities of academic medical centers and other research organizations in the United States if the research involves information about California consumers.
  3. US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) continues aggressive HIPAA enforcement. OCR announced 10 enforcement actions and collected approximately $25.68 million in settlements and civil money penalties from HIPAA-regulated entities in 2018. OCR also published two pieces of guidance and one tool for organizations navigating HIPAA compliance challenges in the digital health space.
  4. Interoperability and the flow of information in the health care ecosystem continues to be a priority. The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) submitted its proposed rule to implement various provisions of the 21st Century Cures Act to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in September 2018; this is one of the final steps before a proposed rule is published in the Federal Register and public comment period opens. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released its own interoperability proposed rule and finalized changes to the Promoting Interoperability (PI) programs to reduce burden and emphasize interoperability of inpatient prospective payment systems and long-term care hospital prospective payment systems.

This week, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC or Commission) released an interactive tool (entitled the “Mobile Health Apps Interactive Tool”) that is intended to help developers identify the federal law(s) that apply to apps that collect, create and share consumer information, including health information. The interactive series of questions and answers augments and cross-references existing guidance from the US Department of Health and Human Service (HHS) that helps individuals and entities—including app developers—understand when the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and its rules may apply.  The tool is also intended to help developers determine whether their app is subject to regulation as a medical device by the FDA, or subject to certain requirements under the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act) or the FTC’s Health Breach Notification Rule. The Commission developed the tool in conjunction with HHS, FDA and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC).

Based on the user’s response to ten questions, the tool helps developers determine if HIPAA, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), FTC Act and/or the FTC’s Health Breach Notification Rule apply to their app(s). Where appropriate based on the developer’s response to a particular question, the tool provides a short synopsis of the potentially applicable law and links to additional information from the appropriate federal government regulator.

The first four questions cover a developer’s potential obligations under HIPAA. The first question explores whether an app creates, receives, maintains or transmits individually identifiable health information, such as an IP address. Developers may use the tool’s second, third and fourth questions to assess whether they are a covered entity or a business associate under HIPAA. The tool’s fifth, sixth and seventh questions help developers establish whether their app may be a medical device that the FDA has chosen to regulate.  The final three questions are intended to help users assess the extent to which the developer is subject to regulation by the FTC.

Although the tool provides helpful, straightforward guidance, users will likely need a working knowledge of relevant regulatory principles to successfully use the tool.  For example, the tool asks the user to identify whether the app is “intended for use” for diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment or disease prevention, but does not provide any information regarding the types of evidence that the FDA would consider to identify a product’s intended use or the intended use of a mobile app (e.g., statements made by the developer in advertising or oral or written statements). In addition, how specifically an app will be offered to individuals to be used in coordination with their physicians can be dispositive of the HIPAA analysis in ways that are not necessarily intuitive.

The tool provides a starting point for developers to raise their awareness of potential compliance obligations. It also highlights the need to further explore the three federal laws, implementing rules and their exceptions. Developers must be aware of the tool’s limitations—it does not address state laws and is not intended to provide legal advice. In fact, the tool does not provide links to the actual text of the laws or regulations and is clearly aimed at non-lawyers.  Nor does the tool highlight all applicable guidance documents provided on the websites for each federal regulator, which shed additional light on what that regulator has determined is within or outside of its oversight.