HHS touts progress on information blocking regulations and nearly $20M in HIPAA settlements

HIPAA document
HHS says OCR HIPAA settlements reached $19.8 million in 2017. But the agency announced just one settlement in the final six months of the year. (Getty/designer491)

A year-end list released by Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) last week offers 36 pages of agency accomplishments including several specific changes to health IT policy.

Defining 2017 broadly as a “year of accomplishment,” the agency detailed regulatory rollbacks within each of its agencies, even as it omitted some notable challenges—including the resignation of former HHS Secretary Tom Price, M.D.

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HHS highlighted specific policy advancements within the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC), which has shifted its focus to improving health IT usability and interoperability. The document (PDF) points to ONC’s public efforts to build a national trust infrastructure with input from industry stakeholders, which culminated in a first draft of the Trusted Exchange Framework and Common Agreement earlier this month.

HHS also touted ONC’s work developing new regulations governing information blocking, noting that the agency “worked in close coordination with OIG to advance policies to address information blocking.”

Publicly, however, agency officials have been tight-lipped about the status of the information blocking rule. In fact, ONC’s Deputy National Coordinator for Health IT Jon White, M.D., got some pushback from Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., during a subcommittee hearing in October when White declined to provide a timeline for the much-anticipated rule at the direction of ONC’s legal counsel.

RELATED: ONC declines to offer a timeline for information blocking, says it's a 'neutral coordinator' for trusted exchange

Meanwhile, health IT associations and EHR vendors have urged federal officials to release a proposed rule in order to get broad stakeholder input. Officials have since said the agency plans to release a proposed rule in April.

HHS also pointed to $19.8 million in settlement funds for HIPAA violations levied by the Office for Civil Rights along with updates to the agency’s breach reporting tool.

HIPAA settlements are down slightly, from nearly $23 million in 2016, and several high-dollar settlements in 2017 were announced prior to the appointment of OCR chief Roger Severino. In fact, in the last six months of 2017, the agency announced just one HIPAA-related settlement: a $2.3 million deal with 21st Century Oncology for violations dating back to 2015.