OCR Pops Idaho Hospice In 1st HIPAA Breach Settlement Affecting < 500 Patients

January 3, 2013

$50K Settlement Shows Small Breach Reports Carry Enforcement Risk

Properly encrypt and protected electronic protected health information (ePHI) on laptops and in other mediums!  That’s the clear message of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in its announcement of its first settlement under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Security Rule involving a breach of ePHI of fewer than 500 individuals by a HIPAA-covered entity, Hospice of North Idaho (HONI). 

In announcing the settlement against HONI, OCR sent a clear message that OCR stands ready to penalize these health care providers, health plans, healthcare clearinghouses and their businesses associates (covered entities) when their failure to properly secure and protect ePHI on laptops or in other systems results in a breach of ePHI even when the breach affects fewer than 500 individuals.

OCR Director Leon Rodriguez reiterated OCR’s expectation that covered entities will properly encrypt ePHI on mobile or other devices in OCR’s announcement of the HONI settlement.  “This action sends a strong message to the health care industry that, regardless of size, covered entities must take action and will be held accountable for safeguarding their patients’ health information.” said OCR Director Leon Rodriguez. “Encryption is an easy method for making lost information unusable, unreadable and undecipherable.”

HONI Settlement For Small Breach Notification

On January 2, 2013, OCR announced HONI will pay OCR $50,000 to settle potential HIPAA violations that occurred in connection with the theft of an unencrypted laptop computer containing ePHI. The HONI settlement is the first settlement involving a breach of ePHI affecting fewer than 500 individuals.  Read the full HONI Resolution Agreement here.

OCR opened an investigation after HONI reported to HHS that an unencrypted laptop computer containing ePHI of 441 patients had been stolen in June 2010.  HONI team members regularly use Laptops containing ePHI their field work.  Over the course of the investigation, OCR discovered that HONI had not conducted a risk analysis to safeguard ePHI or have in place policies or procedures to address mobile device security as required by the HIPAA Security Rule.  Since the June 2010 theft, HONI has taken extensive additional steps to improve their HIPAA Privacy and Security compliance program.

HIPAA Security & Breach Notification For ePHI

The HONI settlement is notable because it marks the first time OCR has sanctioned a covered entity as a result of an OCR investigation stemming from the covered entity’s report of a breach of unsecured protected health information involving fewer than 500 individuals under new breach notification rules added to HIPAA in 2009.

Under the originally enacted requirements of HIPAA, covered entities and their business associates are required to restrict the use, access and disclosure of protected health information and establish and administer various other policies and safeguards in relation to protected health information.  Additionally, the Security Rules require specific encryption and other safeguards when covered entities collect, create, use, access, retain or disclose ePHI.   

The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act amended HIPAA, among other things to tighten certain HIPAA requirements, expand its provisions to directly apply to business associates, as well as covered entities and to impose specific breach notification requirements.  The HITECH Act Breach Notification Rule requires covered entities to report an impermissible use or disclosure of protected health information, or a “breach,” of 500 individuals or more (Large Breach) to the Secretary of HHS and the media within 60 days after the discovery of the breach.  Smaller breaches affecting less than 500 individuals (Small Breach) must be reported to the Secretary on an annual basis. Since the Breach Notification Rule took effect, OCR’s announced policy has been to investigate all Large Breaches and such investigations have resulted in settlements or other corrective action in relation to various Large Breaches.  Until now, however, OCR has not made public any resolution agreements requiring settlement payments involving any Small Breaches.

Enforcement Actions Highlight Growing HIPAA Exposures For Covered Entities

While the HONI settlement marks the first settlement on a small breach, this is not the first time OCR has sought sanctions against a covered entity for data breaches involving the loss or theft of unencrypted data on a Laptop, storage device or other computer device. In fact, OCR’s first resolution agreement – reached before Congress added the HIPAA Breach Notification Rules to HIPAA – stemmed from such a breach.  Providence To Pay $100000 & Implement Other Safeguards  Breaches resulting from the loss or theft of unencrypted ePHI on mobile or other computer devices or systems has been a common basis of investigation and sanctions since that time, particularly since the Breach Notification rules took effect.  See, e.g., OCR Hits Alaska Medicaid For $1.7M+ For HIPAA Security BreachCoupled with statements by OCR about its intolerance, the HONI and other settlements provide a strong warning to covered entities to properly encrypt ePHI on mobile and other devices.

Furthermore, the HONI settlement also adds to growing evidence of the growing exposures that health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses and their business associates need to carefully and appropriately manage their HIPAA encryption and other Privacy and Security responsibilities. See OCR Audit Program Kickoff Further Heats HIPAA Privacy Risks$1.5 Million HIPAA Settlement Reached To Resolve 1st OCR Enforcement Action Prompted By HITECH Act Breach Report; HIPAA Heats Up: HITECH Act Changes Take Effect & OCR Begins Posting Names, Other Details Of Unsecured PHI Breach Reports On WebsiteCovered entities are urged to heed these warning by strengthening their HIPAA compliance and adopting other suitable safeguards to minimize HIPAA exposures. 

In the face of rising enforcement and fines, OCR’s initiation of HIPAA audits and other recent developments, covered entities and their business associates should tighten privacy policies, breach and other monitoring, training and other practices to reduce potential HIPAA exposures in light of recently tightened requirements and new enforcement risks. 

In response to these expanding exposures, all covered entities and their business associates should review critically and carefully the adequacy of their current HIPAA Privacy and Security compliance policies, monitoring, training, breach notification and other practices taking into consideration OCR’s investigation and enforcement actions, emerging litigation and other enforcement data; their own and reports of other security and privacy breaches and near misses, and other developments to decide if additional steps are necessary or advisable. 

New OCR HIPAA Mobile Device Educational Tool

While OCR enforcement of HIPAA has significantly increased, compliance and enforcement of the encryption and other Security Rule requirements of HIPAA are a special focus of OCR. 

To further promote compliance with the Breach Notification Rule as it relates to ePHI on mobile devices, OCR and the HHS Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) recently kicked off a new educational initiative, Mobile Devices: Know the RISKS. Take the STEPS. PROTECT and SECURE Health Information.  The program offers health care providers and organizations practical tips on ways to protect their patients’ health information when using mobile devices such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones.  For more information, see here.  For more information on HIPAA compliance and risk management tips, see here.

For Representation, Training & Other Resources

If you need help monitoring HIPAA and other health and health plan related regulatory policy or enforcement developments, or to review or respond to these or other health care or health IT related risk management, compliance, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer may be able to help.

Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer has more than 24 years experience advising health industry clients about these and other matters. Ms. Stamer has extensive experience advising and assisting health care providers, health plans, their business associates and other health industry clients to establish and administer medical privacy and other compliance and risk management policies, to health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns. She regularly designs and presents HIPAA and other risk management, compliance and other training for health plans, employers, health care providers, professional associations and others.

Scheduled to serve as the scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits agency meeting with OCR, Ms. Stamer also regularly works with OCR and other agencies, publishes and speaks extensively on medical and other privacy and data security, health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns.  Her publications and insights appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications.   For instance, Ms. Stamer for the second year will serve as the appointed scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Agency meeting with OCR.  Her insights on HIPAA risk management and compliance frequently appear in medical privacy related publications of a broad range of health care, health plan and other industry publications Among others, she has conducted privacy training for the Association of State & Territorial Health Plans (ASTHO), the Los Angeles Health Department, the American Bar Association, the Health Care Compliance Association, a multitude of health industry, health plan, insurance and financial services, education, employer employee benefit and other clients, trade and professional associations and others.  You can get more information about her HIPAA and other experience here.

If you need help with these or other compliance concerns, wish to ask about arranging for compliance audit or training, or need legal representation on other matters please contact Ms. Stamer at (469) 767-8872 or via e-mail here.

You can review other recent publications and resources and additional information about the other experience of Ms. Stamer hereExamples of some recent publications that may be of interest include:

If you need help investigating or responding to a known or suspected compliance, litigation or enforcement or other risk management concern, assistance with reviewing, updating, administering or defending a current or proposed employment, employee benefit, compensation or other management practice, wish to inquire about federal or state regulatory compliance audits, risk management or training, or need legal representation on other matters please contact Ms Stamer here or at (469) 767-8872.

About Solutions Law Press, Inc.™

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 ©2013 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C. All rights reserved.


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