Preparing Privacy Compliance For Emergencies-Ebola Crisis Prompts HHS OCR To Share Guidance On HIPAA Privacy in Emergency Situations

November 11, 2014

The recent US Ebola scare provided an important reminder to health care providers, health insurers and health plans, health care clearinghouses, employers and others of the importance of understanding and preparing to deal with health care privacy and other challenges arising from epidemics and other emergencies.  In response to the recent Ebola and other contagious disease outbreaks and just as U.S. health care and other business leaders are working to prepare for the biggest contagious disease time of the year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is reminding health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses (Covered Entities) and their business associates that the privacy rules of the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA) requiring Covered Entities and their business associates to limit the use, access and disclosure of patient’s protected health information (PHI) continue to apply during emergency situations and help them understand when HIPAA allows them to share PHI in emergency situations in a new notice titled “HIPAA Privacy in Emergency Situations” (Guidance) published November 10, 2014. A business associate of a covered entity (including a business associate that is a subcontractor) also must continue to comply with HIPAA and may only make disclosures permitted by the Privacy Rule on behalf of a Covered Entity or another business associate to the extent authorized by its business associate agreement and consistent with HIPAA’s requirements.

Sharing Patient Information

The Guidance begins by reminding Covered Entities and their business associates that HIPAA’s Privacy Rule continues to apply in emergency situations and requires Covered Entities protect and prohibits their use, access or disclosure of patient’s protected health information except as allowed by HIPAA unless the patient authorizes the Covered Entity to disclose the PHI in accordance with HIPAA’s requirements for authorization set forth in 45 CFR 164.508.

The Guidance then goes on to discuss the following circumstances that the HIPAA Privacy Rule might allow Covered Entities to share PHI without getting patient authorization, subject to the reminder that in many cases, HIPAA will require that the Covered Entity limit the disclosure to the minimum necessary disclosure necessary for the allowable purpose and require other conditions to be fulfilled:

  • Treatment.

Under the Privacy Rule, covered entities may disclose, without a patient’s authorization, protected health information about the patient as necessary to treat the patient or to treat a different patient. Treatment includes the coordination or management of health care and related services by one or more health care providers and others, consultation between providers, and the referral of patients for treatment. See 45 CFR §§ 164.502(a)(1)(ii), 164.506(c), and the definition of “treatment” at 164.501.

  • Public Health Activities.

The HIPAA Privacy Rule recognizes the legitimate need for public health authorities and others responsible for ensuring public health and safety to have access to protected health information that is necessary to carry out their public health mission. Therefore, the Privacy Rule permits covered entities to disclose needed protected health information without individual authorization:

  • To Or At The Direction Of A Public Health Authority.

The HIPAA Privacy Rule allows Covered Entities to share protected health information with Public Health Authorities authorized by law to collect or receive such information for the purpose of preventing or controlling disease, injury or disability like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or a state or local health department. This would include, for example, the reporting of disease or injury; reporting vital events, such as births or deaths; and conducting public health surveillance, investigations, or interventions. A “public health authority” is an agency or authority of the United States government, a State, a territory, a political subdivision of a State or territory, or Indian tribe that is responsible for public health matters as part of its official mandate, as well as a person or entity acting under a grant of authority from, or under a contract with, a public health agency. See 45 CFR §§ 164.501 and 164.512(b)(1)(i). For example, a covered entity may disclose to the CDC protected health information on an ongoing basis as needed to report all prior and prospective cases of patients exposed to or suspected or confirmed to have Ebola virus disease.

The HIPAA Privacy Rule also allows Covered Entities to share information at the direction of a public health authority:

    • To a foreign government agency that is acting in collaboration with the public health authority. See 45 CFR 164.512(b)(1)(i); and
    • To persons at risk of contracting or spreading a disease or condition if other law, such as state law, authorizes the covered entity to notify such persons as necessary to prevent or control the spread of the disease or otherwise to carry out public health interventions or investigations. See 45 CFR 164.512(b)(1)(iv)
  • Disclosures to Family, Friends, and Others Involved in an Individual’s Care and for Notification.

The HIPAA Privacy Rule allows a Covered Entity to share protected health information:

    • With a patient’s family members, relatives, friends, or other persons identified by the patient as involved in the patient’s care;
    • About a patient as necessary to identify, locate, and notify family members, guardians, or anyone else responsible for the patient’s care, of the patient’s location, general condition, or death including where necessary to notify family members and others, the police, the press, or the public at large. See 45 CFR 164.510(b).

The Guidance reminds Covered Entities, however, that the Privacy Rule requires the Covered Entity to get verbal permission from individuals or otherwise be able to reasonably infer that the patient does not object, when possible. If the individual is incapacitated or not available, the Guidance states Covered Entities may share information for these purposes if, in their professional judgment, doing so is in the patient’s best interest.

The Guidance also confirms that Covered Entities may share protected health information with disaster relief organizations authorized by law or by their charters to assist in disaster relief efforts like the American Red Cross for the purpose of coordinating the notification of family members or other persons involved in the patient’s care, of the patient’s location, general condition, or death. It is unnecessary to obtain a patient’s permission to share the information in this situation if doing so would interfere with the organization’s ability to respond to the emergency.

  • Imminent Danger

The Guidance also states that Covered Entities that are health care providers may share patient information with anyone as necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health and safety of a person or the public – consistent with applicable law (such as state statutes, regulations, or case law) and the provider’s standards of ethical conduct. See 45 CFR 164.512(j).

  • Disclosures to the Media & Others Not Involved in the Care of the Patient/Notification

The Guidance also reminds Covered Entities of the importance of closely adhering to HIPAA’s rules when responding to information requests from the medial or others not involved in the care of a patient. The Guidance states that when the media or other other party not involved un the patient’s care asks the Covered Entity for information about a particular patient by name, a hospital or other health care facility may release limited facility directory information to acknowledge an individual is a patient at the facility and provide basic information about the patient’s condition in general terms (e.g., critical or stable, deceased, or treated and released) if the patient has not objected to or restricted the release of such information or, if the patient is incapacitated, if the disclosure is believed to be in the best interest of the patient and is consistent with any prior expressed preferences of the patient. See 45 CFR 164.510(a). In general, except in the limited circumstances authorized in the HIPAA Privacy Rule, affirmative reporting to the media or the public at large about an identifiable patient, or the disclosure to the public or media of specific information about treatment of an identifiable patient, such as specific tests, test results or details of a patient’s illness, may not be done without the patient’s written authorization (or the written authorization of a personal representative who is a person legally authorized to make health care decisions for the patient).

  • Minimum Necessary Restriction Requirement

The Guidance cautions Covered Entities and their business associates that for most disclosures, a Covered Entity generally must make reasonable efforts to limit the information disclosed to that which is the “minimum necessary” to accomplish the purpose. However, this minimum necessary requirement does not apply to disclosures to health care providers for treatment purposes.

Covered Entities may rely on representations from a public health authority or other public official that the requested information is the minimum necessary when making disclosures in response to request from those parties. For example, a covered entity may rely on representations from the CDC that the protected health information requested by the CDC about all patients exposed to or suspected or confirmed to have Ebola virus disease is the minimum necessary for the public health purpose.

  • Required Internal Restrictions On Use, Access & Disclosure

Internally, covered entities should continue to apply their role-based access policies to limit access to protected health information to only those workforce members who need it to carry out their duties. See 45 CFR §§ 164.502(b), 164.514(d).

Safeguarding Patient Information

Beyond limiting the use, access and disclosure of PHI, the Guidance also reminds Covered Entities and their business associates that even in emergency situations, HIPAA continues to require them to implement reasonable safeguards to protect patient information against intentional or unintentional impermissible uses and disclosures as well as to apply the administrative, physical, and technical safeguards of the HIPAA Security Rule to electronic PHI.

Limited Waiver

Although HHS has yet to take steps to trigger a limited waiver, the Guidance also reminds Covered Entities and their business associates that HHS has the power to do so, the effect of a limited waiver and the circumstances under which HHS could elect to apply  a limited waiver to waive sanctions against a hospital for certain specific types of HIPAA violations while the waiver is in effect.

As the Guidance notes, the HIPAA Privacy Rule is not suspended during a public health or other emergency.  Rather, the limited waiver rules only operates to permit the Secretary of HHS to waive certain provisions of the Privacy Rule under the Project Bioshield Act of 2004 (PL 108-276) and section 1135(b)(7) of the Social Security Act. The limited waiver only applies when the President declares an emergency or disaster and HHS declares a public health emergency. When and if these requirements are met, HHS may waive sanctions and penalties against a Covered Entity that is a hospital for failing to comply with the following HIPAA Privacy Rule provisions:

  • The requirements to obtain a patient’s agreement to speak with family members or friends involved in the patient’s care. See 45 CFR 164.510(b).
  • The requirement to honor a request to opt out of the facility directory. See 45 CFR 164.510(a).
  • The requirement to distribute a notice of privacy practices. See 45 CFR 164.520.
  • The patient’s right to request privacy restrictions. See 45 CFR 164.522(a).
  • The patient’s right to request confidential communications. See 45 CFR 164.522(b).

If the Secretary issues such a waiver, Covered Entities and their business associates should keep in mind the waiver only applies to the list violations and only applies:

  • For so long as the waiver remains in effect;
  • In the emergency area and for the emergency period identified in the public health emergency declaration
  • To hospitals that have instituted a disaster protocol; and
  • For up to 72 hours from the time the hospital implements its disaster protocol.

When the Presidential or Secretarial declaration terminates, a hospital must then comply with all the requirements of the Privacy Rule for any patient still under its care, even if 72 hours has not elapsed since implementation of its disaster protocol.

Not Necessarily Just About HIPAA

HIPAA is not necessarily the only law that Covered Entities, business associates or others need to consider when deciding what to disclose during an emergency or otherwise.  The HIPAA Privacy Rule applies to disclosures made by and Covered Entities, business associates employees, volunteers, and other members of a Covered Entity’s or Business Associate’s workforce. The Privacy Rule does not apply to disclosures made by entities or other persons who are not Covered Entities.

Beyond HIPAA, Covered Entities, their business associates or members of their workforce, employers, and other organizations also need to consider whether other federal or state laws, ethical rules, contracts or policies may restrict use or disclosure, safeguard, or take other steps to protect PHI or other information.  For instance, other federal laws, state law, professional ethical rules, contracts, facility policies or procedures, or other restrictions often apply to health care provides, insurers, brokers, employers or others.  Employers, health care organizations, insurers and others also need to be concerned about potential discrimination, common law and statutory privacy, retaliation, defamation and other exposures.

Prepare For Compliance Now

The recent experiences of various health care organizations intimately involved in caring for the Ebola patients highlights the importance of anticipating, preparing and conducting training, and having your workforce practice to prepare  to deal with the special challenges of dealing with HIPAA and other legal responsibilities in advance of emergency events.  When preparing for these events, Covered Entities and business associates need to take into account the need to comply operationally as well as to document and retain records of compliance.   They should  both should anticipate and prepare to respond to both typical inquiries as well as those from the media, public and others.   They also should consider how various types of emergencies could create new privacy or security risks.  For instance, in certain emergency situations, recordkeeping or other systems could be disrupted, impacting the ability retain and subsequently produce required documentation.  Furthermore, Covered Entities also should prepare to manage the patient and public relations aspects of these events including adverse impressions that often arise when the media or others are disappointed at being denied information because of compliance obligations, from breaches or perceived breaches, or other similar events.

For More Information Or Assistance

If you need assistance reviewing or responding to these or other health care 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 26 years experience advising health industry clients about these and other matters. Her experience includes advising hospitals, nursing home, home health, rehabilitation and other health care providers and health industry clients to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; prevent, conduct and investigate, and respond to peer review and other quality concerns; and to respond to Board of Medicine, Department of Aging & Disability, Drug Enforcement Agency, OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, HHS, DOD and other health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns.  The scribe for the American Bar Association (ABA) Joint Committee on Employee Benefits annual agency meeting with the Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights,  Ms. Stamer has worked extensively with health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses, their business associates, employers, banks and other financial institutions, and others on risk management and compliance with HIPAA and other information privacy and data security rules, investigating and responding to known or suspected breaches, defending investigations or other actions by plaintiffs, OCR and other federal or state agencies, reporting known or suspected violations, business associate and other contracting, commenting or obtaining other clarification of guidance, training and enforcement, and a host of other related concerns.  Her clients include public and private health care providers, health insurers, health plans, technology and other vendors, and others.  In addition to representing and advising these organizations, she also has conducted training on Privacy & The Pandemic for the Association of State & Territorial Health Plans,  as well as  HIPAA, FACTA, PCI, medical confidentiality, insurance confidentiality and other privacy and data security compliance and risk management for  Los Angeles County Health Department, ISSA, HIMMS, the ABA, SHRM, schools, medical societies, government and private health care and health plan organizations, their business associates, trade associations and others.

A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on 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 insights on these and other related matters appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, 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.  You can get more information about her health industry experience here. If you need assistance responding to concerns about the matters discussed in this publication or other health care concerns, wish to obtain information about arranging for training or presentations by Ms. Stamer, wish to suggest a topic for a future program or update, or wish to request other information or materials, please contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns from Ms. Stamer, see here.

About Solutions Law Press

Solutions Law Press™ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, compensation, data security and privacy, health care, insurance, and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and other key operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press resources including:

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here. For important information concerning this communication click here.

THE FOLLOWING DISCLAIMER IS INCLUDED TO COMPLY WITH AND IN RESPONSE TO U.S. TREASURY DEPARTMENT CIRCULAR 230 REGULATIONS.  ANY STATEMENTS CONTAINED HEREIN ARE NOT INTENDED OR WRITTEN BY THE WRITER TO BE USED, AND NOTHING CONTAINED HEREIN CAN BE USED BY YOU OR ANY OTHER PERSON, FOR THE PURPOSE OF (1) AVOIDING PENALTIES THAT MAY BE IMPOSED UNDER FEDERAL TAX LAW, OR (2) PROMOTING, MARKETING OR RECOMMENDING TO ANOTHER PARTY ANY TAX-RELATED TRANSACTION OR MATTER ADDRESSED HEREIN.

©2014 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C. Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.


CMS To Host Provider Webinar To Celebrate National Health IT Week

September 13, 2013

In celebration of the third annual National Health IT Week is September 16-20, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) will host several webinars and launching new eHealth tools and resources that it intends to help providers participate in eHealth programs.  These programs may be of interest to providers as well as payers who are interested in what providers are doing to use eHealth tools.

Details of Webinar

The eHealth Provider Webinar will be held on Thursday, September 19th from 12:00 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. ET.  CMS plans to present an overview of the eHealth programs and its eHealth initiative—an initiative that aligns health IT and electronic standards programs on:

  • Administrative Simplification
  • eRx Incentive Program
  • ICD-10
  • Quality Measurement

A portion of the webinar will also be dedicated to Q&A.

Registration Information

Space is limited.  Register now to secure your spot for the eHealth Provider WebinarOnce registration is complete, you will receive a follow-up email with step-by-step instructions on how to log-in to the webinar.  Listserv messages are sent prior to each webinar session with registration information.

If you’d like to view past webinars, the PowerPoint presentations and recordings can now be accessed on the Resources page of the eHealth website.  For more information about CMS’ eHealth Initiatives, visit the CMS eHealth website for the latest news and updates on CMS’ eHealth initiatives.

For More Information Or Assistance

If you need assistance responding to this invitation or with other health industry regulatory, enforcement or other developments, reviewing or tightening your policies and procedures, conducting training or audits, responding to or defending an investigation or other enforcement action or with other health care related risk management, compliance, training, 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 25 years experience advising health industry clients about these and other matters. Her experience includes extensive work advising, representing and training health industry and other clients on HIPAA and other privacy, data protection and breach and other related matters.  She also advises hospitals, nursing home, home health, rehabilitation and other health care providers and health industry clients to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; prevent, conduct and investigate, and respond to peer review and other quality concerns; and to respond to Board of Medicine, Department of Aging & Disability, Drug Enforcement Agency, OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, HHS, DOD and other health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns. A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns. Scribe for the ABA JCEB annual Technical Sessions meeting with OCR for the past three years, Ms. Stamer also is recognized for her extensive publications and programs including numerous highly regarding publications and programs on HIPAA and other privacy and data security concerns as well as a wide range of other workshops, programs and publications on other compliance, operational and risk management, and other health industry matters. Ms. Stamer also has extensive other public policy and regulatory experience with HHS and other U.S. federal and state agencies as well as internationally. Her insights on these and other related matters 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.  You can get more information about her health industry experience here. If you need assistance responding to concerns about the matters discussed in this publication or other health care concerns, wish to obtain information about arranging for training or presentations by Ms. Stamer, wish to suggest a topic for a future program or update, or wish to request other information or materials, please contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns from Ms. Stamer, see  here.

About Solutions Law Press

Solutions Law Press™ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, compensation, data security and privacy, health care, insurance, and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and other key operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press resources including:

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here. For important information about this communication click here.  THE FOLLOWING DISCLAIMER IS INCLUDED TO COMPLY WITH AND IN RESPONSE TO U.S. TREASURY DEPARTMENT CIRCULAR 230 REGULATIONS.  ANY STATEMENTS CONTAINED HEREIN ARE NOT INTENDED OR WRITTEN BY THE WRITER TO BE USED, AND NOTHING CONTAINED HEREIN CAN BE USED BY YOU OR ANY OTHER PERSON, FOR THE PURPOSE OF (1) AVOIDING PENALTIES THAT MAY BE IMPOSED UNDER FEDERAL TAX LAW, OR (2) PROMOTING, MARKETING OR RECOMMENDING TO ANOTHER PARTY ANY TAX-RELATED TRANSACTION OR MATTER ADDRESSED HEREIN.  

©2013 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C.  Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.


Tell HHS What You Think-Comment On HHS Strategic Plan Now!

September 9, 2013

Health care providers, health plans, employers and others concerned about the regulatory and enforcement activities of the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) can make their concerns known by speaking up now.  Share your input on the draft HHS strategic plan that will guide HHS’ regulatory and enforcement agenda for the next 4 years.

Every 4 years, HHS updates its strategic plan, which describes its work to address complex, multifaceted, and ever-evolving health and human service issues, including:

  • Health Care
  • Research and Innovation
  • Prevention and Wellness

HHS is inviting public input on the draft HHS Strategic Plan for FY 2014-2018. The comment period is open until October 15, 2013.  Individuals or organizations wishing to respond to this invitation can read the HHS Strategic Plan FY 2014-2018 (Draft) and submit your comments several ways including:

For More Information Or Assistance

If you need assistance responding to this invitation for comment or other health industry regulatory, enforcement or other developments, reviewing or tightening your policies and procedures, conducting training or audits, responding to or defending an investigation or other enforcement action or with other health care related risk management, compliance, training, 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 25 years experience advising health industry clients about these and other matters. Her experience includes extensive work advising, representing and training health industry and other clients on HIPAA and other privacy, data protection and breach and other related matters.  She also advises hospitals, nursing home, home health, rehabilitation and other health care providers and health industry clients to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; prevent, conduct and investigate, and respond to peer review and other quality concerns; and to respond to Board of Medicine, Department of Aging & Disability, Drug Enforcement Agency, OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, HHS, DOD and other health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns. A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns. Scribe for the ABA JCEB annual Technical Sessions meeting with OCR for the past three years, Ms. Stamer also is recognized for her extensive publications and programs including numerous highly regarding publications and programs on HIPAA and other privacy and data security concerns as well as a wide range of other workshops, programs and publications on other compliance, operational and risk management, and other health industry matters. Ms. Stamer also has extensive other public policy and regulatory experience with HHS and other U.S. federal and state agencies as well as internationally. Her insights on these and other related matters 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.  You can get more information about her health industry experience here. If you need assistance responding to concerns about the matters discussed in this publication or other health care concerns, wish to obtain information about arranging for training or presentations by Ms. Stamer, wish to suggest a topic for a future program or update, or wish to request other information or materials, please contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns from Ms. Stamer, see  here.

About Solutions Law Press

Solutions Law Press™ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, compensation, data security and privacy, health care, insurance, and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and other key operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press resources including:

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here. For important information about this communication click here.  THE FOLLOWING DISCLAIMER IS INCLUDED TO COMPLY WITH AND IN RESPONSE TO U.S. TREASURY DEPARTMENT CIRCULAR 230 REGULATIONS.  ANY STATEMENTS CONTAINED HEREIN ARE NOT INTENDED OR WRITTEN BY THE WRITER TO BE USED, AND NOTHING CONTAINED HEREIN CAN BE USED BY YOU OR ANY OTHER PERSON, FOR THE PURPOSE OF (1) AVOIDING PENALTIES THAT MAY BE IMPOSED UNDER FEDERAL TAX LAW, OR (2) PROMOTING, MARKETING OR RECOMMENDING TO ANOTHER PARTY ANY TAX-RELATED TRANSACTION OR MATTER ADDRESSED HEREIN.  

©2013 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C.  Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.


HHS Continues Preparations For Health Care Marketplace By Awarding $32M Of Grants To Up CHIP & Medicaid Enrollment

July 2, 2013

As part of its continuing efforts to promote enrollment in the Health Insurance Marketplace slated to take effect January 1, 2014, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) today (July 2, 2013) announced the award of nearly $32 million in grants for efforts to identify and enroll children eligible for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). The Connecting Kids to Coverage Outreach and Enrollment Grants were awarded to 41 state agencies, community health centers, school-based organizations and non-profit groups in 22 states; two grantees are multistate organizations.  The announcement follows the recent rollout of online tools to aid consumers enroll in the new Health Care Marketplace scheduled to launch January 1, 2014 as part of the continuing implementation of reforms enacted as part of the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act (Affordable Care Act).

Announced Grants Target Increased CHIP & Medicaid Enrollment

In amounts ranging from $190,000 to $1 million out of the $140 million included in the Affordable Care Act and the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act (CHIPRA) of 2009 for enrollment and renewal outreach,  HHS Reports the grants awarded to the grantees listed here focus on 5 areas:

  • Engaging schools in outreach, enrollment and retention activities (9 awards);
  • Reducing health coverage disparities by reaching out to subgroups of children that are less likely to have health coverage (8 awards);
  • Streamlining enrollment for individuals participating in other public benefit programs such as nutritional or other assistance programs (3 awards);
  • Improving application assistance resources to provide high quality, reliable Medicaid and CHIP enrollment and renewal services in local communities (13 awards); and
  • Training communities to help families understand the new application and enrollment system and to deliver effective assistance to families with children eligible for Medicaid or CHIP (8 awards).

According to HHS, the grants will build on the Secretary’s Connecting Kids to Coverage Challenge to find and enroll all eligible children and support outreach strategies that have been shown to be successful.

According to HHS, Connecting Kids to Coverage Outreach and Enrollment Grant Awards (Cycle III) Efforts to streamline Medicaid and CHIP enrollment and renewal practices, combined with robust outreach activities, have helped reduce the number of uninsured children.  Since 2008,  HHS claims 1.7 million children have gained coverage and the rate of uninsured children has dropped to 6.6 percent in 2012

“Today’s grants will ensure that more children across the nation have access to the quality health care they need,” said Secretary Sebelius. “We are drawing from successful children’s health coverage outreach and enrollment efforts to help promote enrollment this fall in Medicaid and the new Health Insurance Marketplace.”

Continuing Preparations For New Health Care Marketplace

 The grant awards are part of a much broader effort by HHS to prepare Americans to enroll in the newly reformed Health Insurance Marketplace that the Obama Administration is working to implement as part of the sweeping reforms enacted by the Affordable Care Act.

Enrollment is the Health Insurance Exchanges also to be included in the new federal health care marketplace is scheduled to begin October 1, 2013.  In anticipation of this deadline, HHS recently also announced its rollout of new consumer health care education and decision-making tools on its newly designed www.healthcare.gov  website.

In announcing its launch of its Health Insurance Marketplace educational tools here on June 24, 2013, the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) repeated recent claims that HHS and the states are on target to begin enrollment on October 1, 2013 in the federal and state health care exchanges now retitled “Health Insurance Marketplace” by the Administration, to meet other key milestones and to the beginning coverage under the newly created Health Insurance Marketplaces beginning January 1, 2014.

As part of these preparations, HHS kicked off an aggressive Health Insurance Marketplace education effort by announcing the deploying of with newly designed “consumer-focused” HealthCare.gov website and the 24-hours-a-day consumer call center that HHS claims provide all the necessary tools to prepare Americans for open enrollment and ultimately sign up for private health insurance.

While HHS says its tools and other preparations will get the Health Care Marketplaces and Americans ready for the conversion of the U.S. health care system slated to begin January 1, 2014, others are less confident.  For instance, GAO officials recently found that major work that federal and state officials  must complete to timely begin enrollment by October 1 remains unfinished, making it unclear if they will meet the impending October 1, 2013 enrollment kickoff deadline.  See GAO Report and  GAO Report.

Businesses concerned about impending “pay-or-play” and other mandates that require many employers that fail to provide minimum essential coverage also have been critical about delayed guidance on these and other Affordable Care Act mandates, which employers claim have left them confused and with inadequate time and guidance to prepare.

Despite these concerns, HHS is marching ahead on its efforts to implement the law by launching these and other enrollment and educational outreach.

For Representation, Training & Other Resources

If you need assistance understanding and responding to health care reforms, monitoring health and health plan related risk management and compliance, operations, 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.

The scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits agency meeting with OCR, Ms. Stamer also regularly advises and represents clients in dealings with, and monitoring and responding to developments of HHS, IRS, DOL, Departments of Health & Insurance and other agencies, Congress and other legislators, and advises clients, publishes and speaks extensively on health care reform, 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.  Her insights on health care reform and a broad range of other 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 assistance 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 ask 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.

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here. For important information on this communication click here.    If you do not wish to receive these updates in the future, send an e-mail with the word “Remove” in the Subject to here.

©2013 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C.  Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.  All other rights reserved.


Hospital Pay $275K To Settle HIPAA Charges After Sharing PHI With Press, Workforce In Response To Fraud Reports

June 14, 2013

Health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses and their business associates should confirm their existing policies, practices and training for communicating with the media and others comply with the Privacy Rule requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule in light of a Resolution Agreement with Shasta Regional Medical Center (SRMC) announced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights today (June 14, 2013).

Under the Resolution Agreement, SRMC agrees to pay $275,000 and implement a comprehensive corrective action plan (CAP) to settle an investigation that resulted when SRMC used and disclosed protected health information (PHI) of a patient to members of the media and its workforce while trying to do damage control against fraud or other allegations of misconduct involving individual patient information or circumstances.  The Resolution Agreement shows how efforts to respond to press or media reports, patient or other complaints, physician or employee disputes, high profile accidents, or other events that may involve communications not typically run by privacy officers can create big exposures.

Talking Out Of Turn To Media & Others Violated HIPAA

OCR investigated SRMC after a January 4, 2012 Los Angeles Times article reported two SRMC senior leaders had met with media to discuss medical services provided to a patient.  OCR’s investigation indicated that SRMC failed to safeguard the patient’s protected health information (PHI) from impermissible disclosure by intentionally disclosing PHI to multiple media outlets on at least three separate occasions, without a valid written authorization. OCR’s review also revealed senior management at SRMC impermissibly shared details about the patient’s medical condition, diagnosis and treatment in an email to the entire workforce.  Further, SRMC failed to sanction its workforce members for impermissibly disclosing the patient’s records pursuant to its internal sanctions policy.

Among other things, the specific misconduct uncovered by HHS’s investigation indicated that from December 13 – 20, 2011, SRMC failed to safeguard the patient’s PHI from any impermissible intentional or unintentional disclosure on multiple occasions in connection with its response to media coverage arising from a Medicare fraud story including:

  • On December 13, 2011, for instance, OCR reports SRMC’s parent company sent a letter to California Watch, responding to a story about Medicare fraud. The letter described  the patient’s medical treatment and provided specifics about her lab results even though SRMC did not have a written authorization from  the patient to disclose this information to this news outlet.
  • On December 16, 2011, two of SRMC’s senior leaders also met with The Record Searchlight’s editor to discuss the patient’s medical record in detail even though SRMC did not have a written authorization from  the patient to disclose this information to this newspaper.
  • On December 20, 2011, SRMC sent a letter to The Los Angeles Times, which contained detailed information about the treatment  the patient received when, again, SRMC did not have a written authorization from  the patient to disclose this information to this newspaper.

In addition, OCR found SRMC impermissibly used the affected party’s PHI  when on December 20, 2011, SRMC sent an email to its entire workforce and medical staff, approximately 785-900 individuals, describing, in detail,  the patient’s medical condition, diagnosis and treatment. SRMC did not have a written authorization from  the patient to share this information with SRMC’s entire workforce and medical staff.

SRMC Must Correct & Pay $$275K Penalty

Under the Resolution Agreement, SRMC pays a $275,000 monetary settlement and agrees to comply with a CAP for the next year.

The CAP requires SRMC to update its policies and procedures on safeguarding PHI from impermissible uses and disclosures and to train its workforce members.  The CAP also requires fifteen other hospitals or medical centers under the same ownership or operational control as SRMC to attest to their understanding of permissible uses and disclosures of PHI, including disclosures to the media.

The Resolution Agreement specifically requires that Shasta Regional Medical Center, among other things:

  • To update policies to include specific policies about sharing PHI with the media, members of the workforce not involved in an individual patient’s care and others to comply with HIPAA;.
  • To provide updated policies to OCR for approval;
  • To provide training documented with certification of all workforce members before allowing them to access PHI;

SRMC is one of several Prime Healthcare Services facilities under common ownership and control.  The Resolution Agreement also requires corrective action at these commonly owned facilities including California-based Alvarado Hospital Medical Center in San Diego, Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood, Chino Valley Medical Center in Chino, Desert Valley Hospital in Victorville, Garden Grove Hospital Medical Center in Garden Grove,  La Palma Intercommunity Hospital in La Palma, Paradise Valley Hospital in National City, San Dimas Community Hospital in San Dimas, Shasta Regional Medical Center in Redding, and West Anaheim Medical Center in Anaheim; Saint Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Reno, Nevada; Pennsylvania based Lower Bucks Hospital in Bristol and Roxborough Memorial Hospital in Philadelphia;and Texas-based Dallas Medical Center in Dallas, Harlingen Medical Center in Harlingen, Pampa Regional Medical Center in Pampa.  Among other things, the Resolution Agreement requires that for each of these related facilities:

  • The CEO and Privacy Officer of each facility must give OCR a signed affidavit stating that they understand that the Privacy Rule protects an individual’s PHI is protected by Privacy Rule even if such information is already in the public domain or even though it has been disclosed by the individual; and that disclosures of PHI in response to media inquiries are only permissible pursuant to a signed HIPAA authorization; and
  • Ensure all members of their respective workforce are informed of this policy.

The Resolution Agreement highlights the difficulty that health care providers and other covered entities often face in properly recognizing and handling PHI in the case of fraud or other disputes.  While health care providers have an understandable desire to defend themselves in the media and elsewhere in response to charges of misconduct, today’s settlement shows that improperly sharing PHI of each patient in the process will make matters much worse. It’s important to keep in mind that just omitting to mention the name or other common identifying information may not overcome this concern because information about a patient can be considered individually identifiable and to enjoy protection under HIPAA where the facts and circumstances would allow another person to know or determine who the individual is, even if the specific name, address or more common identifying information is not shared.

Furthermore, the settlement also makes clear that merely because the patient or some other party has shared the same information with the media or others does not excuse the health care provider or other covered entity or business associate from the obligation to keep confidential the PHI unless it gets proper consent or otherwise can show that an exception to HIPAA applies.

While this  means that health care providers or other covered entities and business associates may find themselves in the uncomfortable situation of facing unsavory reports and rumors without the ability to respond, the significant civil and even criminal penalties that can arise from violation of HIPAA make it critical that covered entities exercise discipline in responding to avoid sharing PHI improperly.

Enforcement Actions Highlight Growing HIPAA Exposures For Covered Entities

The SRMC Resolution Agreement again shows the growing risk of enforcement that health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses and their business associates face as OCR continues its audits and enforcement, new Omnibus HIPAA Regulations implementing the HITECH Act amendments to HIPAA and state and federal liability grows..  See e.g., $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 Website

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 determine if additional steps are necessary or advisable.

As part of this process, covered entities should ensure they look outside the four corners of their Privacy Policies to ensure that appropriate training and clarification is provided to address media, practice transition, workforce communication and other policies and practices that may be covered by pre-existing or other policies of other departments or operational elements not typically under the direct oversight and management of the Privacy Officer such as media relations.  Media relations, physician and patients affairs, outside legal counsel, media relations, marketing and other internal and external departments and consultants dealing with the media, the public or other inquiries or disputes should carefully include and coordinate with the privacy officer both to ensure appropriate policies and procedures are followed and proper documentation created and retained to show authorization, account, or meet other requirements.

For more information about the PCS Resolution Agreement and HIPAA compliance and risk management tips, see here.

For Representation, Training & Other Resources

If you need assistance 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 often 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 assistance 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.

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here. For important information on this communication click here.    If you do not wish to receive these updates in the future, send an e-mail with the word “Remove” in the Subject to here.

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


Hospital’s Disability Discrimination Settlement 4th In 5 Weeks For Justice Department

March 13, 2013

Health Care Providers Must Strengthen Disability Compliance & Risk Management

Health care providers beware! The Obama Administration is targeting health care providers that violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehab Act) and other federal disability discrimination laws. 

On March 13, 2013, the Justice Department announced that Glenbeigh Hospital (Glenbeigh) of Rock Creek, Ohio is the fourth health care provider in five weeks to agree to a settlement with the Justice Department resolving disability discrimination charges brought under its Barrier Free Health Care Initiative (Initiative).  The Glenbeigh settlement is one of a growing list of disability discrimination settlements and judgements against health care providers brought by the Justice Department, the Department of Health & Human Resources Office of Civil Rights and other federal agencies. 

Barrier Free Health Care Initiative Targets Health Care Providers For Disability Discrimination

Launched on the 22nd anniversary of the ADA in July 2012, the Initiative is a partnership of the Civil Rights Division and 40 U.S. Attorney’s offices across the nation, that targets ADA and other disability discrimination law enforcement efforts on a critical area for individuals with disabilities.

Part of a broader enforcement initiative of the Obama Administration to enforce and expand federal protections for individuals with disabilities, the Initiative seeks to protect patients with disabilities against illegal disability discrimination by prosecuting health care providers under the ADA and the Rehab Act. 

Section 504 of the Rehab Act requires recipients of Medicare, Medicaid, HUD, Department of Education, welfare and most other federal assistance programs funds including health care, education, housing services providers, state and local governments to ensure that qualified individuals with disabilities have equal access to programs, services, or activities receiving federal financial assistance.

The ADA extends the prohibition against disability discrimination to private providers and other businesses as well as state and local governments including but not limited to health care providers reimbursed by Medicare, Medicaid or various other federal programs The ADA requirements extend most federal disability discrimination prohibits to health care and other businesses even if they do not receive federal financial assistance to ensure that qualified individuals with disabilities have equal access to their programs, services or activities.  

In many instances, these federal discrimination laws both prohibit discrimination and require health care and other regulated businesses to put in place reasonable accommodations needed to ensure that their services are accessible and available to persons with disabilities.  The public accommodation provisions of the ADA, for instance, generally require those doctors’ offices, medical clinics, hospitals, and other health care providers, as well as other covered businesses to provide people with disabilities, including those with HIV, equal access to goods, services, and facilities.  The ADA also may compel health care providers to adjust their practices for delivering care and/or providing access to facilities to accommodate special needs of disabled individuals under certain circumstances. Meanwhile the Civil Rights Act and other laws prohibit discrimination based on national origin, race, sex, age, religion and various other grounds.  These federal rules impact almost all public and private health care providers as well as a broad range housing and related service providers.

Glenbeigh ADA Disability Discrimination Settlement

According to the Justice Department, Glenbeigh has agreed to a settlement resolving charges it violated the ADA by denying admission to someone because of HIV.  The fourth ADA disability discrimination settlement addressing HIV discrimination by a medical provider reached by the Justice Department in six weeks, the settlement requires Glenbeigh to pay $32,500 to the complainant, $5,000 in civil penalties, train its staff on the ADA and develop and implement an anti-discrimination policy. 

The settlement resolves Justice Department charges that engaged in prohibited disability discrimination in violation of the ADA by unlawfully refusing to admit someone with HIV into its alcohol treatment program because of the side effects of his HIV medication.   Glenbeigh’s alcohol treatment program consists of helping patients through the physical aspects of recovery, as well as providing counseling and incorporating spiritual healing.   The Justice Department determined Glenbeigh cannot show that treating the complainant would have posed a direct threat to the health or safety of others.

In announcing the Glenbeigh settlement, the Justice Department warned other providers against illegal disability discrimination against individuals with HIV or other disabilities.

“Ensuring access to medical care for people with HIV requires that those in the medical field make medical decisions that are not based on fears or stereotypes,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division.   “The ADA does not tolerate HIV discrimination and neither will the Justice Department.”

Glenbeigh Settlement Part of Larger Disability Enforcement Trend

Settlements like Glenbeigh’s are growing increasingly common as the Initiative picks up steam.  As part of a broader emphasis on the enforcement of disability and other federal discrimination laws by the Obama Administration, Federal agencies are making investigation and prosecution of suspected disability discrimination by health industry and other organizations a priority.  

In the past five weeks, the Justice Department announced similar agreements with Woodlawn Family Dentistry, the Castlewood Treatment Center, and the Fayetteville Pain Center to address HIV discrimination. These new settlements add to a growing list of Justice Department disability discrimination enforcement actions against health care providers.   Along side a growing list of disability discrimination settlements and prosections, the Justice Department has a website dedicated to disabilities law enforcement, which includes links to settlements, briefs, findings letters, and other materials. 

 The  Justice Departments campaign against disability discrimination by health care providers is supported and enhanced by the concurrent efforts of OCR.   Along side the Justice Department’s efforts, OCR recently has announced several settlement agreements and issued letters of findings as part of its ongoing efforts to ensure compliance with the Rehab Act and the ADA well as various other federal nondiscrimination and civil rights laws. Through its own antidiscrimination campaign, OCR is racking up an impressive list of settlements with health care providers, housing and other businesses for violating the ADA, Section 504 or other related civil rights rules enforced by OCR.   See, e.g. Genesis Healthcare Disability HHS OCR Discrimination Settlement Reminder To Use Interpreters, Other Needed Accommodations For Disabled.   Meanwhile, both the Justice Department and OCR also are encouraging victims of discrimination to enforce their rights through private action through educational outreach to disabled and other individuals protected by federal disabilities and other civil rights laws to make them aware of and to encourage them to act to enforce these rights.

Providers Should Act To Manage Patient-Related Disability Discrimination Risks

Prosecutions and settlements like the Glenbeigh settlements show the need for health care providers and other public and private organizations to strengthen their disability discrimination compliance and management practices to defend against rising exposures to actions by the Justice Department, OCR, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and other agencies as well as private law suits.  Hospitals, health care clinics, physicians and other health care providers should take steps to guard against joining the growing list of health care providers caught in the enforcement sights of the Initiative by reviewing and updating practices, policies, training and oversight to ensure that their organizations can prevent and defend against charges of disability discrimination.

Defending or paying to settle a disability discrimination charge brought by a private plaintiff, OCR or another agency, or others tends to be financially, operationally and politically costly for a health care organization or public housing provider.  In addition to the expanding readiness of OCR and other agencies to pursue investigations and enforcement of disability discrimination and other laws, the failure of health care organizations to effectively keep up processes to appropriately include and care for disabled other patients or constituents with special needs also can increase negligence exposure, undermine Joint Commission and other quality ratings, undermine efforts to qualify for public or private grant, partnerships or other similar arrangements, and create negative perceptions in the community.

In light of the expanding readiness of the Justice Department, OCR, HUD, EEOC and other agencies to investigate and take action against health care providers for potential violations of the ADA, Section 504 and other federal discrimination and civil rights laws, health care organizations and their leaders should review and tighten their policies, practices, training, documentation, investigation, redress, discipline and other nondiscrimination policies and procedures. In carrying out these activities, organizations and their leaders should keep in mind the critical role of training and oversight of staff and contractors plays in promoting and maintaining required operational compliance with these requirements.  Reported settlements reflect that the liability trigger often is discriminatory conduct by staff, contractors, or landlords in violation of both the law and the organization’s own policies.

To achieve and maintain the necessary operational compliance with these requirements, organizations should both adopt and policies against prohibited discrimination and take the necessary steps to institutionalize compliance with these policies by providing ongoing staff and vendor training and oversight, contracting for and monitoring vendor compliance and other actions.  Organizations also should take advantage of opportunities to identify and resolve potential compliance concerns by revising patient and other processes and procedures to enhance the ability of the organization to learn about and redress potential charges without government intervention.

For More Information Or Assistance

If you need assistance reviewing or tightening your policies and procedures, conducting training or audits, responding to or defending an investigation or other enforcement action or with other health care related risk management, compliance, training, 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. Her experience includes advising hospitals, nursing home, home health, rehabilitation and other health care providers and health industry clients to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; prevent, conduct and investigate, and respond to peer review and other quality concerns; and to respond to Board of Medicine, Department of Aging & Disability, Drug Enforcement Agency, OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, HHS, DOD and other health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns.

A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on 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 presentations and programs include How to Ensure That Your Organization Is In Compliance With Regulations Governing Discrimination, as well as a wide range of other workshops, programs and publications on discrimination and cultural diversity, as well as a broad range of compliance, operational and risk management, and other health industry matters.

Her insights on these and other related matters 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.  You can get more information about her health industry experience here. If you need assistance responding to concerns about the matters discussed in this publication or other health care concerns, wish to obtain information about arranging for training or presentations by Ms. Stamer, wish to suggest a topic for a future program or update, or wish to request other information or materials, please contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (469) 767-8872 or via e-mail here.

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Genesis Healthcare Disability HHS OCR Discrimination Settlement Reminder To Use Interpreters, Other Needed Accommodations For Disabled

March 5, 2013

 Health care providers dealing with patients with hearing, language, cognitive, or other disabilities are reminded to use care to provide interpreters or other accommodations when necessary to care for disabled or other language limited patients by a settlement announced with Genesis HealthCare (Genesis).

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR)   announced today that Genesis has reached an agreement to settle OCR charges that it violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Act) by failing to provide an interpreter for a language impaired patient.  The latest in a growing list of enforcement actions by OCR against health care providers for failing to provide interpreters or other accommodations for disabled, English-as-a-second-language, or other language impaired patients, it reminds health care providers of the importance of providing appropriate interpreter or other accommodations needed to enable patients to properly understand and participate in their care.  The announcement comes as HHS is releasing new resources reminding health care providers and others of the need to provide appropriate language access resources to these and other patients and their caregivers with language challenges.

Genesis Settlement

As interpreted by OCR, the Act requires that health care and other facilities covered by the Act take appropriate steps to ensure effective communications with patients when delivering health care or other services.

The settlement follows an OCR investigation of a complaint that Genesis, one of the largest providers of senior care violated the Act by failing to provide a qualified interpreter to a resident at its skilled nursing facility in its Randallstown, Maryland.  Genesis operates more than 400 skilled nursing centers and assisted/senior living communities across 29 states.

According to OCR, an OCR investigation conducted under the Act found Genesis center staff at the facility harmed the health care and overall health status of the patient by not providing a qualified interpreter, evaluations of his care and discussions on the effects of his numerous medications and the risks caused by not following recommended treatments and prescription protocols. OCR charged the Genesis staff improperly relied on written notes and gestures to communicate with the resident—even while conducting a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation of him.  OCR concluded that a qualified sign language interpreter was necessary for the patient and staff to be able to communicate effectively with each other regarding treatment.

Under the settlement terms, all 400 Genesis skilled nursing facilities must comply with the terms and conditions of the settlement.  The settlement also requires Genesis to form an auxiliary aids and services hotline; create an advisory committee to provide guidance and direction on how to best communicate with the deaf and hard of hearing community; designate a monitor to conduct a self-assessment and get feedback from deaf and hard of hearing individuals and advocates and conduct outreach to promote awareness of hearing impairments and services that are available for deaf and hard of hearing individuals.  In addition Genesis will  pay monetary penalties for noncompliance with any terms of the agreement.

In announcing the settlement, OCR Director emphasized OCR’s commitment to enforcing the Act’s nondiscrimination provisions.  “This patient’s care was unnecessarily and significantly compromised by the stark absence of interpreter services,” said Rodriguez.  “My office continues its enforcement activities and work with providers, particularly large health care systems like Genesis, to make certain that compliance with nondiscrimination laws is a system wide obligation.”

The settlement follows two enforcement actions by OCR in early February to ensure deaf and hard of hearing individuals living in New York and Washington, D.C., have equal access to programs and services provided by local government agencies. Like the settlement announced today, both of those actions arose from complaints that individuals were denied interpreters.  In those cases, the needed interpreters were sign language interpreters in Cattaraugus County Department of Aging (CCDOA) in New York and the District of Columbia Children and Family Services Agency (DCCFSA).  OCR conducted investigations under the Actand Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which require that covered entities ensure effective communication for persons with disabilities.  Those actions resulted in the CCDOA voluntary resolution agreement, and the DCCFSA settlement agreement.

HHS Shares Language Access Resources

HHS views the availability of appropriate langauge accommodations as key to providing quality of care.  The effort includes persons facing not only disabilities impacting communications, but others with language barriers.  In support of its efforts to promote the availability and use of appropriate langauge accommodations, HSS recently shared its 2013 Language Access Plan (HHS LAP) for ensuring access to the Department’s programs and activities to people with limited English proficiency (LEP).  The LEP reflects HHS’ awareness that America’s population reflects diverse communications needs.  Nearly 20 percent of the population (55 million people) speaks a language other than English at home, 63 percent of hospitals treat LEP patients daily or weekly and more than 15 languages are frequently encountered by at least 20 percent of hospitals.   

In accordance with Executive Order 13166, Improving Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency, the HHS LAP establishes the Department’s policy and strategy for serving persons with LEP and its commitment to the language access principals which state that people with LEP should have meaningful access to federally funded programs, activities, services and benefits.  The plan  available here urther serves as a blueprint for HHS Divisions to develop their own agency-specific language access plans. The HHS LAP is organized into ten cross-cutting elements with specific actions steps for HHS agencies to include in their respective agency-specific plans.  The ten elements include:

  • ELEMENT 1:   Assessment: Needs and Capacity
  • ELEMENT 2:   Oral Language Assistance Services
  • ELEMENT 3:   Written Translations
  • ELEMENT 4:   Policies and Procedures
  • ELEMENT 5:   Notification of the Availability of Language Assistance at no Cost
  • ELEMENT 6:   Staff Training
  • ELEMENT 7:   Assessment: Access and Quality
  • ELEMENT 8:   Stakeholder Consultation (New Element)
  • ELEMENT 9:   Digital Information (New Element)
  • ELEMENT 10: Grant Assurance and Compliance (New Element)

Hospitals and other health care providers should use these elements as guidelines for meeting the needs for language limited populations and patients, as well as to help structure the elements for assessment and accommodation of persons with disabilities impacting the abiity to communicate.

Enforcement Exposures Rising

The  settlement and Director Rodriguez’s statements should alert  health care providers and other public and private organizations of the need to strengthen their disability discrimination compliance and management practices to defend against rising exposures to actions by the U.S. Department of Justice, Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights (OCR), Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and other agencies as well as private law suits.

As part of a broader emphasis on the enforcement of disability and other federal discrimination laws by the Obama Administration, Federal agencies are making investigation and prosecution of suspected disability discrimination by health industry and other organizations a priority.  OCR recently has announced several settlement agreements and issued letters of findings as part of its ongoing efforts to ensure compliance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and the ADA well as various other federal nondiscrimination and civil rights laws.

Defending or paying to settle a disability discrimination charge brought by a private plaintiff, OCR or another agency, or others tends to be financially, operationally and politically costly for a health care organization or public housing provider.  In addition to the expanding readiness of OCR and other agencies to pursue investigations and enforcement of disability discrimination and other laws, the failure of health care organizations to effectively keep up processes to appropriately include and care for disabled other patients or constituents with special needs also can increase negligence exposure, undermine Joint Commission and other quality ratings, undermine efforts to qualify for public or private grant, partnerships or other similar arrangements, and create negative perceptions in the community.

Most health care and other U.S. businesses fully appreciate the growing disability discrimination exposures in employment but often are less aware of or ready to manage their responsibilities under the ADA public accommodation rules or other laws.

  • Employment Discrimination Under ADA

Title I of the ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of disability in various aspects of employment.  The ADA’s provisions on disability-related inquiries and medical examinations show Congress’s intent to protect the rights of applicants and employees to be assessed on merit alone, while protecting the rights of employers to make sure that individuals in the workplace can efficiently do the essential functions of their jobs.  An employer generally violates the ADA if it requires its employees to undergo medical examinations or submit to disability-related inquiries that are not related to how the employee performs his or her job duties, or if it requires its employees to disclose over broad medical history or medical records.  Title I of the ADA also generally requires employers to make  reasonable accommodations to employees’ and applicants’ disabilities as long as  this does not pose an undue hardship or the employer the employer otherwise proves employing a person with a disability with reasonable accommodation could not end significant safety concerns.  Employers generally bear the burden of proving these or other defenses.  Employers are also prohibited from excluding individuals with disabilities unless they show that the exclusion is consistent with business necessity and they are prohibited from retaliating against employees for opposing practices contrary to the ADA. 

Violations of the ADA can expose businesses to substantial liability.  Violations of the employment provisions of the ADA may be prosecuted by the EEOC or by private lawsuits and can result in significant judgments.  Employees or applicants that can prove they were subjected to prohibited disability discrimination under the ADA generally can recover actual damages, attorneys’ fees, and up to $300,000 of exemplary damages (depending on the size of the employer).   

  • ADA Public Accommodation & Other Federal Discrimination

In addition to the well-known and expanding employment discrimination risks, public and private health care and housing providers also increasingly face disability discrimination exposures under various federal laws such as the public accommodation and other disability discrimination prohibitions of the ADA, Section 504, the Civil Rights Act and various other laws that the Obama Administration views as high enforcement priorities.

Section 504 requires recipients of Medicare, Medicaid, HUD, Department of Education, welfare and most other federal assistance programs funds including health care, education, housing services providers, state and local governments to ensure that qualified individuals with disabilities have equal access to programs, services, or activities receiving federal financial assistance. The ADA extends the prohibition against disability discrimination to private providers and other businesses as well as state and local governments including but not limited to health care providers reimbursed by Medicare, Medicaid or various other federal programs The ADA requirements extend most federal disability discrimination prohibits to health care and other businesses even if they do not receive federal financial assistance to ensure that qualified individuals with disabilities have equal access to their programs, services or activities.  In many instances, these federal discrimination laws both prohibit discrimination and require health care and other regulated businesses to put in place reasonable accommodations needed to ensure that their services are accessible and available to persons with disabilities.  Meanwhile the Civil Rights Act and other laws prohibit discrimination based on national origin, race, sex, age, religion and various other grounds.  These federal rules impact almost all public and private health care providers as well as a broad range housing and related service providers.

As a result of its stepped up enforcement of the ADA, Section 504 and other civil rights and nondiscrimination rules, OCR is racking up an impressive list of settlements with health care providers, housing and other businesses for violating the ADA, Section 504 or other related civil rights rules enforced by OCR.  While OCR continues to wage this enforcement battle in the programs it administers, the Departments of Justice, Housing & Urban Development, Education, Labor and other federal agencies also are waging war against what the Obama Administration perceives as illegal discrimination in other areas.  Along side their own enforcement activities, OCR and other federal agencies are maintaining a vigorous public outreach to disabled and other individuals protected by federal disabilities and other civil rights laws intended to make them aware of and to encourage them to act to enforce these rights. To be ready to defend against the resulting risk of claims and other enforcement actions created by these activities, health care, housing and other U.S. providers and businesses need to tighten compliance and risk management procedures and take other steps to prepare themselves to respond to potential charges and investigations.

Enforcement of Discrimination & Other Civil Rights Laws Obama Administration Priority Putting Public & Private Providers At Risk

A growing list of ADA and other disability discrimination law enforcement actions against private and public health care and housing providers, state and local governments and other businesses under the Obama Administration make it increasingly critical that health care organizations and other businesses manage disability discrimination risk both in their employment practices and their other business operations.

As for employment discrimination, violators of these and other federal discrimination prohibitions applicable to the offering and delivery of services and products also face exposure to large civil damage awards to private plaintiffs as well as federal program disqualification, penalties and other federal agency enforcement. Unfortunately, while most businesses and governmental leaders generally are sensitive to the need to maintain effective compliance programs to prevent and redress employment discrimination, the awareness of the applicability and non-employment related disability and other discrimination risk management and compliance lags far behind.

When considering these potential exposures, many private health care organizations mistakenly assume that OCR’s enforcement actions are mostly a problem for state and local government agencies because state and local agencies and service providers frequently in the past have been the target of OCR discrimination charges.  As demonstrated by the ADA exposures are high for both public and private providers, however.  OCR , the Department of Justice and other federal and state agencies can and do investigate and prosecute  a lot of public and private physicians, hospitals, insurers and other private health care and other federal program participants.  

Consequently, disability discrimination management requires more than employment discrimination management.  The Obama Administration also has trumpeted its commitment to the aggressive enforcement of the public accommodation provisions of the ADA and other federal disability discrimination laws.  In June, 2012, for instance, President Obama himself made a point of reaffirming his administration’s “commitment to fighting discrimination, and to addressing the needs and concerns of those living with disabilities.”

As part of its significant commitment to disability discrimination enforcement, the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department has aggressively enforced the public accommodation provisions of the ADA and other federal disability discrimination laws against state agencies and private businesses that it perceives to have improperly discriminated against disabled individuals.  For instance, the Justice Department entered into a landmark settlement agreement with the Commonwealth of Virginia, which will shift Virginia’s developmental disabilities system from one heavily reliant on large, state-run institutions to one focused on safe, individualized, and community-based services that promote integration, independence and full participation by people with disabilities in community life. The agreement expands and strengthens every aspect of the Commonwealth’s system of serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in integrated settings, and it does so through a number of services and supports.  The Justice Department has a website dedicated to disabilities law enforcement, which includes links to settlements, briefs, findings letters, and other materials. The settlement agreements are a reminder that private businesses and state and local government agencies alike should exercise special care to prepare to defend their actions against potential disability or other Civil Rights discrimination challenges.  All organizations, whether public or private need to make sure both that their organizations, their policies, and people in form and in action understand and comply with current disability and other nondiscrimination laws.  When reviewing these responsibilities, many state and local governments and private businesses may need to update their understanding of current requirements.  Statutory, regulatory or enforcement changes have expanded the scope and applicability of disability and various other federal nondiscrimination and other laws and risks of charges of discrimination. 

Invest in Prevention To Minimize Liability Risks

In light of the expanding readiness of the Justice Department, OCR, HUD, EEOC and other agencies to investigate and take action against health care providers for potential violations of the ADA, Section 504 and other federal discrimination and civil rights laws, health care organizations and their leaders should review and tighten their policies, practices, training, documentation, investigation, redress, discipline and other nondiscrimination policies and procedures. In carrying out these activities, organizations and their leaders should keep in mind the critical role of training and oversight of staff and contractors plays in promoting and maintaining required operational compliance with these requirements.  Reported settlements reflect that the liability trigger often is discriminatory conduct by staff, contractors, or landlords in violation of both the law and the organization’s own policies.

To achieve and maintain the necessary operational compliance with these requirements, organizations should both adopt and policies against prohibited discrimination and take the necessary steps to institutionalize compliance with these policies by providing ongoing staff and vendor training and oversight, contracting for and monitoring vendor compliance and other actions.  Organizations also should take advantage of opportunities to identify and resolve potential compliance concerns by revising patient and other processes and procedures to enhance the ability of the organization to learn about and redress potential charges without government intervention.

For More Information Or Assistance

If you need assistance reviewing or tightening your policies and procedures, conducting training or audits, responding to or defending an investigation or other enforcement action or with other health care related risk management, compliance, training, 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. Her experience includes advising hospitals, nursing home, home health, rehabilitation and other health care providers and health industry clients to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; prevent, conduct and investigate, and respond to peer review and other quality concerns; and to respond to Board of Medicine, Department of Aging & Disability, Drug Enforcement Agency, OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, HHS, DOD and other health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns.

A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on 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 presentations and programs include How to Ensure That Your Organization Is In Compliance With Regulations Governing Discrimination, as well as a wide range of other workshops, programs and publications on discrimination and cultural diversity, as well as a broad range of compliance, operational and risk management, and other health industry matters.

Her insights on these and other related matters 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.  You can get more information about her health industry experience here. If you need assistance responding to concerns about the matters discussed in this publication or other health care concerns, wish to obtain information about arranging for training or presentations by Ms. Stamer, wish to suggest a topic for a future program or update, or wish to request other information or materials, please contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (469) 767-8872 or via e-mail here.

About Solutions Law Press, Inc.™

Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ provides business and management information, tools and solutions, training and education, services and support to help organizations and their leaders promote effective management of legal and operational performance, regulatory compliance and risk management, data and information protection and risk management and other key management objectives.  Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ also conducts and help businesses and associations to design, present and conduct customized programs and training targeted to their specific audiences and needs.  For additional information about upcoming programs, to explore becoming a presenting sponsor for an upcoming event, e-mail your request to info@Solutionslawpress.com   These programs, publications and other resources are provided only for general informational and educational purposes. Neither the distribution or presentation of these programs and materials to any party nor any statement or information provided in or in connection with this communication, the program or associated materials are intended to or shall be construed as establishing an attorney-client relationship, to constitute legal advice or provide any assurance or expectation from Solutions Law Press, Inc., the presenter or any related parties. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future Alerts or other information about developments, publications or programs or other updates, send your request to info@solutionslawpress.com.  CIRCULAR 230 NOTICE: The following disclaimer is included to comply with and in response to U.S. Treasury Department Circular 230 Regulations.  ANY STATEMENTS CONTAINED HEREIN ARE NOT INTENDED OR WRITTEN BY THE WRITER TO BE USED, AND NOTHING CONTAINED HEREIN CAN BE USED BY YOU OR ANY OTHER PERSON, FOR THE PURPOSE OF (1) AVOIDING PENALTIES THAT MAY BE IMPOSED UNDER FEDERAL TAX LAW, OR (2) PROMOTING, MARKETING OR RECOMMENDING TO ANOTHER PARTY ANY TAX-RELATED TRANSACTION OR MATTER ADDRESSED HEREIN.   ©2013 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C. All rights reserved.


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