Brace For OCR HIPAA Audits & Enforcement

Health care providers, employer and union sponsored health plans,  health insurers, healthcare clearinghouses (Covered Entities) and their business associates should brace for audits and enforcement of the Privacy, Security, and Breach Notification rules by the Department of Health & Human Service Office of Civil Rights (OCR) follow OCR’s 2016 audit program on the heels of its announcement last week of two large HIPAA settlements last week.

OCR confirmed today it is sending emails notifying Covered Entities and their business associates identified as part of the kickoff of its next phase of audits of Covered Entities. In light of the HIPAA verification rules and the notorius spread of opportunistic identity theft and other fraud by opportunistic cybercrimals following these types of announcements, Covered Entities and business associates should carefully verify the requests validity and manage the response to avoid violating HIPAA in responding and position for defensibility against potential penalties. 

2016 Audit Program 

In its 2016 Phase 2 HIPAA Audit Program, OCR will review the policies and procedures adopted and employed by Covered Entities and their business associates to meet selected standards and implementation specifications of the Privacy, Security, and Breach Notification Rules. These audits will primarily be desk audits, although some on-site audits will be conducted.

According to today’s announcement, the 2016 audit process begins with verification of an entity’s address and contact information. OCR is sending emails to Covered Entities and business associates requesting that contact information be provided to OCR in a timely manner. OCR will then transmit a pre-audit questionnaire to gather data about the size, type, and operations of potential auditees; this data will be used with other information to create potential audit subject pools. Recipients should contact qualified legal counsel immediately for advice and assistance about proper procedures to verify the email is in fact from OCR and for assistance in responding. 

If an entity does not respond to OCR’s request to verify its contact information or pre-audit questionnaire, OCR will use publically available information about the entity to create its audit subject pool. Therefore an entity that does not respond to OCR may still be selected for an audit or subject to a compliance review. Communications from OCR will be sent via email and may be incorrectly classified as spam. If your entity’s spam filtering and virus protection are automatically enabled, OCR expects entities to check their junk or spam email folder for emails from OCR.

 The announcement also reflects that OCR is still developing other aspects of the audit program. OCR will post updated audit protocols on its website closer to conducting the 2016 audits. The audit protocol will be updated to reflect the HIPAA Omnibus Rulemaking and can be used as a tool by organizations to conduct their own internal self-audits as part of their HIPAA compliance activities.
OCR says its audits will enhance industry awareness of compliance obligations and enable OCR to better target technical assistance regarding problems identified through the audits. Through the information gleaned from the audits, OCR will develop tools and guidance to assist the industry in compliance self-evaluation and in preventing breaches. OCR plans to use results and procedures used in the phase 2 audits to develop its permanent HIPAA audit program.

OCR Settlements Show Enforcement Risk

The audit program announcement comes less than a week after OCR announced millions of dollars of new penalties under settlements with two Covered Entities:

  • A $1,555,000 settlement with North Memorial Health Care of Minnesota;
  • A $3.9 million settlement with Feinstein Institute for Medical Research.

The two settlements drive home again the substantial liability that Covered Entities and their business associates risk for violating HIPAA.

Feinstein Settlement

Feinstein is a biomedical research institute that is organized as a New York not-for-profit corporation and is sponsored by Northwell Health, Inc., formerly known as North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System, a large health system headquartered in Manhasset, New York that is comprised of twenty one hospitals and over 450 patient facilities and physician practices.

OCR’s investigation began after Feinstein filed a breach report indicating that on September 2, 2012, a laptop computer containing the electronic protected health information (ePHI) of approximately 13,000 patients and research participants was stolen from an employee’s car. The ePHI stored in the laptop included the names of research participants, dates of birth, addresses, social security numbers, diagnoses, laboratory results, medications, and medical information relating to potential participation in a research study.

OCR’s investigation discovered that Feinstein’s security management process was limited in scope, incomplete, and insufficient to address potential risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of ePHI held by the entity. Further, Feinstein lacked policies and procedures for authorizing access to ePHI by its workforce members, failed to implement safeguards to restrict access to unauthorized users, and lacked policies and procedures to govern the receipt and removal of laptops that contained ePHI into and out of its facilities. For electronic equipment procured outside of Feinstein’s standard acquisition process, Feinstein failed to implement proper mechanisms for safeguarding ePHI as required by the Security Rule.

“Research institutions subject to HIPAA must be held to the same compliance standards as all other HIPAA-covered entities,” said OCR Director Jocelyn Samuels. “For individuals to trust in the research process and for patients to trust in those institutions, they must have some assurance that their information is kept private and secure.”

The resolution agreement and corrective action plan may be found on the OCR website at

North Memorial

The Feinstein settlement announcement foll OCR’s announcement of a $1.5 million plus settlement with North Memorial to resolve HIPAA charges that it failed to implement a business associate agreement with a major contractor and failed to institute an organization-wide risk analysis to address the risks and vulnerabilities to its patient information. North Memorial is a comprehensive, not-for-profit health care system in Minnesota that serves the Twin Cities and surrounding communities. The settlement highlights the importance for Covered Entities and their business associates to comply with HIPAA’s business associate agreement and other HIPAA organizational, risk assessment, privacy and security, and other requirements.

OCR’s announcement emphasizes the importance of meeting these requirements. “Two major cornerstones of the HIPAA Rules were overlooked by this entity,” said Jocelyn Samuels, Director of OCR. “Organizations must have in place compliant business associate agreements as well as an accurate and thorough risk analysis that addresses their enterprise-wide IT infrastructure.”

The settlement comes from charges filed after OCR initiated its investigation of North Memorial following receipt of a breach report on September 27, 2011, which indicated that an unencrypted, password-protected laptop was stolen from a business associate’s workforce member’s locked vehicle, impacting the electronic protected health information (ePHI) of 9,497 individuals.

OCR’s investigation indicated that North Memorial failed to have in place a business associate agreement, as required under the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules, so that its business associate could perform certain payment and health care operations activities on its behalf. North Memorial gave its business associate, Accretive, access to North Memorial’s hospital database, which stored the ePHI of 289,904 patients. Accretive also received access to non-electronic protected health information as it performed services on-site at North Memorial.

The investigation further determined that North Memorial failed to complete a risk analysis to address all of the potential risks and vulnerabilities to the ePHI that it maintained, accessed, or transmitted across its entire IT infrastructure — including but not limited to all applications, software, databases, servers, workstations, mobile devices and electronic media, network administration and security devices, and associated business processes.

In addition to the $1,550,000 payment, North Memorial is required to develop an organization-wide risk analysis and risk management plan, as required under the Security Rule. North Memorial will also train appropriate workforce members on all policies and procedures newly developed or revised pursuant to this corrective action plan.

The Resolution Agreement and Corrective Action Plan can be found on the HHS website at:

Settlements Latest Reminder To Manage HIPAA Risks

Following up on OCR’s imposition of its second-ever HIPAA Civil Monetary Penalty (CMP) and the latest in an ever-growing list of settlements by Covered Entities under HIPAA, the North Memorial settlement is another example of the substantial liability that Covered Entities face for violating HIPAA. To avoid these liabilities, Covered Entities must constantly be diligent to comply with the latest guidance of OCR concerning their obligations under HIPAA. As OCR continues to issue additional guidance as well as supplement this guidance through information shared in settlement agreements like the North Memorial settlement, even if Covered Entities reviewed their practices in the last 12-months, most will want to update this review in response to new OCR guidance and enforcement actions, including new guidance on obligations to provide plan members or other subjects of protected health information with access to or copies of their records and other guidance, as well as the ever expanding list of enforcement actions by OCR.

Since the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act of 2009 (HITECH) amended HIPAA, Covered Entities face growing responsibilities and liability for maintaining the security of ePHI. In response to HITECH, OCR continues to use a carrot and stick approach to encouraging and enforcing compliance. As demonstrated by OCR’s imposition of the second-ever HIPAA Civil Monetary Penalty (CMP) of $239,000 against Lincare and the ever-growing list of Resolution Agreements OCR announces with other Covered Entities, OCR continues to step up enforcement against Covered Entities that breach the Privacy and Security Rules. See OCR’s 2nd-Ever HIPAA CMP Nails Lincare For $239,000.

On the other hand, OCR also continues to encourage voluntary compliance by Covered Entities by sharing guidance and tools to aid Covered Entities to understand fulfill their HIPAA responsibilities such as the HIPAA Security Rule Crosswalk to NIST Cybersecurity Framework (Crosswalk) unveiled by OCR on February 24, 2016.The crosswalk that maps the HIPAA Security Rule to the standards of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity (the Cybersecurity Framework) as well as mappings to certain other commonly used security frameworks.

While stating that the HIPAA Security Rule does not require use of the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, OCR says it hopes the Crosswalk will provide “a helpful roadmap” for HIPAA Covered Entities and their business associates to understand the overlap between the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, the HIPAA Security Rule, and other security frameworks that can help Covered Entities safeguard health data in a time of increasing risks and help them to identify potential gaps in their programs. At the same time, OCR’s announcement of its release of the Crosswalk also cautions users that “use of the Framework does not guarantee HIPAA compliance.” Rather, OCR says “the crosswalk provides an informative tool for entities to use to help them more comprehensively manage security risks in their environments.

With a USA Today report attributing more than 40 percent of data breaches to the healthcare industry over the last three years 91 percent of all health organizations having reporting breaches over the last two years, OCR has made clear that it intends to zealously investigate and enforce the Security Rules against Covered Entities that violate the Security Rules against Covered Entities that fail to take suitable steps to safeguard the security of PHI as required by the HIPAA Security Rule. To meet these requirements, the HIPAA Security Rule requires that Covered Entities conduct and be prepared to product documentation of their audit and other efforts to comply with the Security Rule Most Covered Entities will want to consider including an assessment of the adequacy of their existing practices under the Crosswalk and other requirements disclosed by OCR in these assessments to help position the Covered Entity to defend or mitigate HIPAA CMP and other liabilities in the event of a HIPAA breach or audit.

Latest Guidance Clarifies Patient Rights To Access PHI & Allowable Charges

In addition to maintaining adequate security, HIPAA also requires Covered Entities to provide individuals with the right to access and receive a copy of their health information from their providers, hospitals, and health insurance plans in accordance with the HIPAA Privacy Rule. In response to recurrent difficulties experienced by individuals in exercising these rights, OCR recently published supplemental guidance to clarify and promote better understanding and compliance with these rules by Covered Entities.

OCR started this process in January, 2015 by releasing a comprehensive fact sheet (Access fact sheet) and the first in a series of topical frequently asked questions (FAQs) addressing patients’ right to access their medical records, which set forth requirements providers must follow in sharing medical records with patients, including that they must do so in a timely manner and in a format that works for the patient.

Earlier this month, OCR followed up by publishing on March 1, 2016 a second set of FAQs addresses additional issues, including the fees individuals may be charged for copies of their health information and the right of individuals to have their health information sent directly to a third party if they so choose.

Covered entities and their business associates should move quickly to review and update their business associate agreements and other practices to comply with this new guidance as well as watch for further guidance and enforcement about these practices from OCR.

Other Key HIPAA Regulatory & Enforcement Changes Raise Responsibilities & Risks

OCR’s new guidance on access to PHI follows a host of other regulatory and enforcement activities. While the particulars of each of these new actions and guidance vary, all send a very clear message: OCR expects Covered Entities and their business associates to comply with HIPAA and is offering tools and other guidance to aid them in that process.. In the event of a breach or audit, Covered Entities and their business associates need to be prepared to demonstrate their efforts to comply. Those that cannot show adequate compliance efforts should be prepared for potentially substantial CMP or Resolution Agreement payments and other sanctions.

Register For 3/30 Webex Briefing

Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ invites to catch up on the latest guidance on the Covered Entities’ responsibility under HIPAA to provide access to patients to PHI by registering here to participate in the “HIPAA Update: The Latest On Security, Patient Access & Other HIPAA Developments” Webex briefing by attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer that Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ will host beginning at Noon Central Time on Wednesday, March 30, 2016. Get additional information or register here.T 

About The Speaker

CYNTHIA Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely recognized for her extensive work and pragmatic thought leadership, experience, publications and training on HIPAA and other privacy, medical records and data and other health care and health plan concerns.

Recognized as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in both Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law, a “Texas Top Lawyer,” an “AV-Preeminent” and “Top Rated Lawyer” by Martindale-Hubble and as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” in employee benefits 2015 by D Magazine; Ms. Stamer has more than 28 years of extensive proven, pragmatic knowledge and experience representing and advising health industry clients and others on operational, regulatory and other compliance, risk management, product and process development, public policy and other key concerns.

As a core component of her work as the Managing Shareholder of Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, PC, the Co-Managing Member of Stamer Chadwick Soefje PLLC, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively throughout her nearly 30 year career with health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses, their business associates, employers, banks and other financial institutions, their technology and other vendors and service providers, and others on legal and operational risk management and compliance with HIPAA, FACTA, PCI, trade secret, physician and other medical confidentiality and privacy, federal and state data security and data breach and other information privacy and data security rules and concerns; prevention, investigation, response, mitigation and resolution of known or suspected data or privacy breaches or other incidents; defending investigations or other actions by plaintiffs, OCR, FTC, state attorneys’ general and other federal or state agencies; reporting and redressing known or suspected breaches or other violations; business associate and other contracting; insurance or other liability management and allocation; process and product development, contracting, deployment and defense; evaluation, commenting or seeking modification of regulatory guidance, and other regulatory and public policy advocacy; training and discipline; enforcement, and a host of other related concerns for public and private health care providers, health insurers, health plans, technology and other vendors, employers, and others.

Beyond her extensive involvement advising and defending clients on these matters, Ms. Stamer also has served for several years as the scrivener for the ABA JCEB’s meeting with OCR for many years. She returns as Chair of the Southern California ISSA Health Care Privacy & Security Summit for the third year in 2016, as well as speaks and serves on the steering committee of a multitude of other programs.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares shared her thought leadership, experience and advocacy on HIPAA and other concerns by her service in the leadership of a broad range of other professional and civic organization including her involvement as the Vice Chair of the North Texas Healthcare Compliance Association, Executive Director of the Coalition on Responsible Health Policy and its PROJECT COPE; Coalition on Patient Empowerment, a founding Board Member and past President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence, past Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; former Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children; former Board Compliance Chair and Board member of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, current Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee, current Vice Chair of Policy for the Life Sciences Committee of the ABA International Section, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, a current Defined Contribution Plan Committee Co-Chair, former Group Chair and Co-Chair of the ABA RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, immediate past RPTE Representative to ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative and current RPTE Representative to the ABA Health Law Coordinating Counsel, former Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division, past Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee, a former member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Benefits Association and others.

Ms. Stamer also is a highly popular lecturer, symposia chair and author, who publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry, human resources, employment and other privacy, data security and other technology, regulatory and operational risk management. Examples of her many highly regarded publications on these matters include “Protecting & Using Patient Data In Disease Management: Opportunities, Liabilities And Prescriptions,” “Privacy Invasions of Medical Care-An Emerging Perspective,” “Cybercrime and Identity Theft: Health Information Security: Beyond HIPAA,” as well as thousands of other publications, programs and workshops these and other concerns for the American Bar Association, ALI-ABA, American Health Lawyers, Society of Human Resources Professionals, the Southwest Benefits Association, the Society of Employee Benefits Administrators, the American Law Institute, Lexis-Nexis, Atlantic Information Services, The Bureau of National Affairs (BNA),, Benefits Magazine, Employee Benefit News, Texas CEO Magazine, HealthLeaders, the HCCA, ISSA, HIMSS, Modern Healthcare, Managed Healthcare, Institute of Internal Auditors, Society of CPAs, Business Insurance, Employee Benefits News, World At Work, Benefits Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Morning News, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other symposia and publications. She also has served as an Editorial Advisory Board Member for human resources, employee benefit and other management focused publications of BNA,, Employee Benefit News, and many other prominent publications and speaks and conducts training for a broad range of professional organizations and for clientson the Advisory Boards of,, Employee Benefit News, and many other publications. For additional information about Ms. Stamer, see or the Stamer│Chadwick │Soefje PLLC or contact Ms. Stamer via email to here or via telephone to (469) 767-8872.

About Solutions Law Press, Inc.™

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

New CDC Guidance on Opioid Prescribing
Update Privacy Practices For New OCR HIPAA Enforcement, Security & Records Access Guidance
3/30 Webex Shares Latest On Security, Patient Access & Other HIPAA Developments
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Redesigned OCR Website Launched
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OIG Modifies Past Ruling, Blesses Two New Medicare Co-Pay Financial Programs
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Health Care Fraud Prosecutions Target Owners, Operators & Other Leaders
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Practitioners Act Now To Request Review of 2016 Value Modifiers Now

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