HIPAA Sanctions Triggered From Covered Entity Statements To Media, Workforce


Health plans, health care providers, health care clearinghouses (covered entities) 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.  While the Resolution Agreement targets a health care provider, the lessons are equally applicable to health plans and health care clearinghouses, who increasingly face their own pressure to communicate with the media and others about enforcement actions, workforce claims and other matters.

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 get access to 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 wish 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.

Finally, the Resolution Agreement also makes clear that OCR expects covered entities to connect their HIPAA compliance with other policies and operations and will hold covered entities and associates accountable for properly integrating, training workforce and enforcing compliance with these policies.  While this  means that 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.

The 2013 Regulations Overview

Adding a review and update of HIPAA and other policies for communicating with the media and internally on matters that may involve use or discussions of PHI in unusual contexts outside the purview of typically HIPAA policies is a good idea while health plans and other covered entities and business associates are updating their existing policies and practices for compliance with updated Omnibus HIPAA Rules (2013 Regulations) implementing HITECH Act amendments to the Privacy and Security Rules under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA).  The Rulemaking announced January 17, 2013 may be viewed here.

Since 2003, HIPAA generally has required that health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses and their business associates (“Covered Entities”) restrict and safeguard individually identifiable  health care information (“PHI”) of individuals and afford other protections to individuals that are the subject of that information.  The 2013 Regulations published today complete the implementation of changes to HIPAA that Congress enacted when it passed the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act in 2009 as well as make other changes to the prior regulations that OCR found desirable based on its experience administering and enforcing the law over the past decade.

Since passage of the HITECH Act, OCR officials have warned Covered Entities to expect an omnibus restatement of its original regulations.  While OCR had issued certain regulations implementing some of the HITECH Act changes, it waited to publish certain regulations necessary to implement other HITECH Act changes until it could complete a more comprehensive restatement of its previously published HIPAA regulations to reflect both the HITECH Act amendments and other refinements to  its HIPAA Rules. The 2013 Regulations published today fulfill  that promise by restating OCR’s HIPAA Regulations to reflect the HITECH Act Amendments and other changes and clarifications to OCR’s interpretation and enforcement of HIPAA.

Among other things, the 2013 Regulations:

  • Revise OCR’s HIPAA regulations to reflect the HITECH Act’s amendment of HIPAA to add the contractors and subcontractors of health plans, health care providers and health care clearinghouses that qualify as business associates to the parties directly responsible for complying with and subject to HIPAA’s civil and criminal penalties for violating HIPAA’s Privacy, Security, and Breach Notification rules;
  • Update previous interim regulations implementing HITECH Act breach notification rules that require Covered Entities including business associates to give specific notifications to individuals whose PHI is breached, HHS and in some cases, the media when a breach of unsecured information happens;
  • Update interim enforcement guidance OCR previously published to implement increased penalties and other changes to HIPAA’s civil and criminal sanctions enacted by the HITECH Act;
  • Implement HITECH Act amendments to HIPAA that tighten the conditions under which Covered Entities are allowed to use or disclose PHI for marketing and fundraising purposes and prohibit Covered Entities from selling an individual’s health information without getting the individual’s authorization in the way required by the 2013 Regulations;
  • Update OCR’s rules about the rights that HIPAA requires that Covered Entities to afford to individuals who are the subject of PHI used or possessed by a Covered Entity to reflect tightened requirements enacted by the HITECH Act  that allow individuals to order their health care provider not to share information about their treatment with health plans when the individual pays cash for the care and to clarify that individuals can require Covered Entities to provide electronic PHI in electronic form;
  • Revise the regulations to reflect amendments to HIPAA made as part of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) which added genetic information to the definition of PHI protected under the HIPAA Privacy Rule and prohibits health plans from using or disclosing genetic information for underwriting purposes; and
  • Clarifies and revises other provisions to reflect other interpretations and information guidance that OCR has issued since HIPAA was passed and to make certain other changes that OCR found appropriate based on its experience administering and enforcing the rules.

Liability & Enforcement Risks Heighten Need To Act To Review & Update Policies & Practices

The new Resolution Agreement and the growing list of others like it, as well as restated rules in the 2013 Regulations make it imperative that Covered Entities review the revised rules carefully and updated their policies, practices, business associate agreements, training and documentation to comply with the updated requirements and other enforcement and liability risks.  OCR even prior to the regulations has aggressively investigated and enforced the HIPAA requirements.

OCR increasingly is imposing  sanctions against a covered entity for data breaches to show the potential risks of HIPAA violations are significant and growing.  OCR Hits Alaska Medicaid For $1.7M+ For HIPAA Security Breach; OCR Audit Program Kickoff Further Heats HIPAA Privacy Risks$1.5 Million HIPAA Settlement Reached To Resolve 1st OCR Enforcement Action Prompted By HITECH Act Breach Report; HIPAA Heats Up: HITECH Act Changes Take Effect & OCR Begins Posting Names, Other Details Of Unsecured PHI Breach Reports On Website; Providence To Pay $100000 & Implement Other Safeguards.

In response to the 2013 Regulations and these expanding exposures, all Covered Entities should review critically and carefully the adequacy of their current HIPAA Privacy and Security compliance policies, monitoring, training, breach notification and other practices taking into consideration OCR’s investigation and enforcement actions, emerging litigation and other enforcement data; their own and reports of other security and privacy breaches and near misses; and other developments to decide if additional steps are necessary or advisable.   In response to these expanding exposures, all covered entities and their business associates should review critically and carefully the adequacy of their current HIPAA Privacy and Security compliance policies, monitoring, training, breach notification and other practices taking into consideration OCR’s investigation and enforcement actions, emerging litigation and other enforcement data; their own and reports of other security and privacy breaches and near misses, and other developments to decide if tightening their policies, practices, documentation or training is necessary or advisable.

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 HIPAA compliance and risk management tips, see here.

For Help With Compliance, Risk Management, Investigations, Policy Updates Or Other Needs

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

Nationally recognized for her extensive work, publications and leadership on HIPAA and other privacy and data security concerns, Ms. Stamer has extensive experience representing, advising and assisting health care providers, health plans, their business associates and other health industry clients to establish and administer medical and other privacy and data security, employment, employee benefits, and to handle other compliance and risk management policies and practices; to investigate and respond to OCR and other 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.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, State Bar of Texas and American Bar Association, Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, the Former Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefit & Compensation Group and current Co-Chair of its Welfare Benefit Committee, Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Committee, an ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative, 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 serves 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  on HIPAA and other data privacy and security concerns 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 third year will serve in 2013 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, SHRM, HIMMS, the American Bar Association, the Health Care Compliance Association, a multitude of 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.

In addition to this extensive HIPAA specific experience, Ms. Stamer also is recognized for her experience and skill aiding clients with a diverse range of other employment, employee benefits, health and safety, public policy, and other compliance and risk management concerns.

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, a member of the Editorial Advisory Board and expert panels of HR.com, Employee Benefit News, InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com, and Solutions Law Press, Inc., management attorney and consultant Ms. Stamer has 25 years of experience helping employers; employee benefit plans and their sponsors, administrators, fiduciaries; employee leasing, recruiting, staffing and other professional employment organizations; and others design, administer and defend innovative workforce, compensation, employee benefit  and management policies and practices.   Ms. Stamer often has worked, extensively on these and other workforce and performance related matters.  In addition to her continuous day-to-day involvement helping businesses to manage employment and employee benefit plan concerns, she also has extensive public policy and regulatory experience with these and other matters domestically and internationally.  A former member of the Executive Committee of the Texas Association of Business and past Government Affairs Committee Legislative Chair for the Dallas Human Resources Management Association, Ms. Stamer served as a primary advisor to the Government of Bolivia on its pension privatization law, and has been intimately involved in federal, state, and international workforce, health care, pension and social security, tax, education, immigration, education and other legislative and regulatory reform in the US and abroad.  She also is recognized for her publications, industry leadership, workshops and presentations on these and other human resources concerns and regularly speaks and conducts training on these matters. Her insights on these and other matters appear in the Bureau of National Affairs, Spencer Publications, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other national and local publications. For more information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to get access to other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.

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

About Solutions Law Press, Inc.

Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ 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 in exploring other Solutions Law Press, Inc. ™ tools, products, training and other resources here and reading some of our other Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ human resources news here including the following:

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

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