The withdrawal of funding for the Office of the Chief Privacy Officer has resulted in ONC National Coordinator Don Rucker, M.D. confirming that the office will be closed during 2018.
Deven McGraw, the Deputy Director for Health Information Privacy, has been acting as Acting Chief Privacy Officer until a permanent replacement to the role previously filled by Lucia Savage is identified, following her departure in January. It now seems unlikely that a permanent replacement will be recruited.
One of the key duties of the Chief Privacy Officer is to ensure that privacy and security standards are addressed and health data is properly protected. The Chief Privacy Officer also advises the National Coordinator for Health IT on privacy and security policies in relation to electronic health information. However, Rucker does not feel it is necessary for the ONC to have an office solely dedicated to privacy and security as other groups in the HHS could assist and take on more duties.
The HITECH Act required ONC to hire a Chief Privacy Officer; however, an alternative tactic is for ONC to request personnel from other HHS agencies. Faced with a $22 million cut in its operating funds, ONC will turn to the HHS’ Office for Civil Rights to help with privacy functions with the ONC only keeping in place ‘limited support’ for the position of Chief Privacy Officer.
The Chief Privacy Officer has been vital in improving understanding of HIPAA Rules in relation to privacy since the HITECH Act was passed. Many healthcare groups have impeded the flow of health data due to a misunderstanding of the HIPAA Privacy Rule. The Chief Privacy Officer has helped to explain that HIPAA Rules do not stop the transfer of health information – They only ensure data is shared securely and the privacy of patients is maintained. These outreach attempts are likely to be impacted by the loss of the Office of the Chief Privacy Officer.
Rucker said that talks are now taking place between ONC and OCR to determine how these and other jobs will be performed, but explained that privacy and security are implicit in all aspects of the work carried out by ONC and that will not change.
Cutbacks are inevitable with the slashing of the ONC’s budget but Rucker has stated that the HHS will still ensure privacy and security issues are tackled with and attempts to improve understanding of the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules will carrying on.