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Author: Megan Williams

Healthcare regulation is finally catching up to the rest of society. While much of the industry has lagged in the areas of access, funding, and patient data privacy and security, recent forces (including the COVID-19 pandemic) have pushed things forward. What does this mean for broadband?

Changes in funding for and access to telehealth have increased burdens on internet communications, which is why it's critical for business leaders to stay up to date on the data and healthcare regulation frameworks and changes that are shaping healthcare today.

What hasn't changed in patient data privacy and security

First, longstanding U.S. federal privacy laws are still in place to protect patient data privacy. This is also true for state health data privacy and consent laws and policies.

For example, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) guidelines impact any professional or healthcare organization providing remote services to patients, whether they are in their homes or community centers.

The HIPAA Security Rule states that:

  • Only authorized users should be allowed access to ePHI.
  • Communication systems should be secure and protect the integrity of ePHI.
  • Systems of monitoring communications of ePHI should be put in place to protect against accidental breaches or those from malicious actors.

The laws of telehealth and patient data privacy today

Some of the updates and changes to healthcare regulation directly address the challenges of telehealth and providing care across long distances through broadband and other communication methods.

HIPAA notification of enforcement discretion

During the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE), the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a Notification of Enforcement Discretion of HIPAA Rules.

This notification stated that OCR would exercise enforcement discretion, not imposing penalties for non-compliance with regulatory requirements as long as a provider is acting in good faith in providing telehealth during the PHE. Instead, healthcare providers would be allowed to exercise more professional judgment in maintaining patient data privacy when using technologies like video chat applications and desktop computers to assess more patients and help limit the risk of the spread of infection. The notice is in effect until the PHE expires.

Infrastructure funding bill

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act) is a major boost to the use of broadband around the country—a direct support of telehealth access.

About $65 billion is being funneled into the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program. The program offers competitive grants to states for broadband deployment in unserved and underserved communities and low-cost broadband deployment for multifamily residential buildings, among other uses.

Rural support for telehealth access and healthcare regulation

Some groups have struggled with telehealth access and healthcare regulation more than others, such as rural areas, which are home to some of the country's oldest and sickest patients. But legislation is evolving to turn that around.

Cures 2.0 (the bipartisan legislation that builds on the 21st Century Cures Act of 2016) is positioned to permanently remove the geographic and originating site requirements under Medicare (these restrictions have required a patient to live in a rural area and be physically present in a doctor's office or clinic to qualify for telehealth service coverage). It also expands Medicare coverage to apply to audio-only telemental health services that are provided by rural health clinics and federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) beyond the PHE.

Verizon is expanding LTE Home Internet to more rural areas in line with this evolution in legislation to help more users around the world access high-speed networks wherever they are. This, in turn, will open up access to telehealth services in more remote areas.

Emerging trends in patient data privacy

But the healthcare regulation that shapes patient data security and privacy continues to evolve. Information blocking (the practice of preventing or materially discouraging the exchange of or access to electronic health information) has been in the sights of federal regulations for a while now, but the Cures Act Final Rule has extended the applicability date for Information Blocking provisions, finalizing the definition and identifying exceptions.

On the public health front, experts are expecting a shift to "solidarity-based healthcare" in the wake of a global pandemic. This would move the patient data focus away from individual privacy rights and put more attention on public health. Laws in this area could include looser regulations around medical research to give scientists more access to personal health information.

Discover how Verizon is supporting healthcare IT and access as it moves into a new digital age of communication and streamlined virtual care.