Health Plans & Employers Beware! $4.3 Million Civil Penalty Shows OCR Serious About HIPAA Enforcement


A $4.3 million civil monetary penalty (CMP) imposed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) against Cignet Health of Prince George’s County, Md., (Cignet) signals the growing need for health plans and their sponsors, health care providers, health care clearinghouses and their business associates covered by the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule to get serious about HIPAA compliance. 

The first CMP ever assessed by OCR under the HIPAA Privacy Rule, the Cignet CMP assessment announced February 22, 2011, the $4.3 million CMP against Cignet announced February 22, 2011 applies the expanded HIPAA violation categories and increased HIPAA civil monetary penalty amounts authorized as part of the expansion of HIPAA obligations and penalties enacted as part of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act in 2009.

The Cignet penalty announcement is the latest in a series of developments documenting the rising risks that health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses and their business associates (“covered entities”) face for violations of HIPAA. 

Even before the announcement of the Cignet CMP, the HIPAA Privacy exposures of covered entities for failing to comply with HIPAA already had risen significantly. While OCR had not assessed any civil monetary penalties against any covered entity for violation of HIPAA before Cignet, OCR’s collection of $1 Million from Rite Aid in a 2010 Resolution Agreement, $2.25 million from CVS Pharmacy, Inc. under a 2009 Resolution Agreement and $100,000 from Providence Health & Services under a 2008 Resolution Agreement demonstrated that covered entities could face significant civil liability for willful violations of the Privacy Rules.  In addition, the Department of Justice has secured several criminal convictions or pleas under HIPAA’s criminal provisions. OCR data confirms that the covered entities involved in these actions included health care providers, health plans, and others.  

Health plans and other covered entities as well as their business associates should tighten privacy policies, breach and other monitoring, training and other practices to mitigate against exposures in light of recently tightened requirements and new enforcement risks.  To minimize the potential that the health plan’s sharing of information with the employer will create or spread HIPAA or other privacy risks to the employer or members of its workforce, employers and other plan sponsors and members of their workforce also should take steps to ensure not only that their health plan documents, policies and procedures, as well as those policies and practices applicable to employer, its human resources, and benefits advisors when accessing or handling health plan or other medical information on behalf of the employer, rather than the plan, are appropriately designed and administered.

Read more details and get tips here.

For Help With Investigations, Policy Review & Updates Or Other Needs

If you need assistance in auditing or assessing, updating or defending your HIPAA or other health plan, or other labor and employment, employee benefit, compensation, privacy and data security, or other internal controls and practices, please contact the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer here or at (469)767-8872.

Ms. Stamer, a noted Texas-based employee benefits and employment lawyer Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, will discuss HIPAA and other privacy risks and risk management strategies for employers, health and employee benefit plan sponsors and their administrators at the Southwest Benefits Association/IRS Plan Administrator Skills Workshops to be held February 25 in Dallas and March 4 in Houston. 

The Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee, a Council Representative on the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, Government Affairs Committee Legislative Chair for the Dallas Human Resources Management Association, and past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Ms. Stamer works, publishes and speaks extensively on HIPAA and other privacy and data security, health plan, health care and other human resources and workforce, employee benefits, compensation, internal controls and related matters.

For more than 23 years, Ms. Stamer has counseled, represented and trained employers and other employee benefit plan sponsors, plan administrators and fiduciaries, insurers and financial services providers, third party administrators, human resources and employee benefit information technology vendors and others privacy and data security, fiduciary responsibility, plan design and administration and other compliance, risk management and operations matters.  She also is recognized for her publications, industry leadership, workshops and presentations on privacy and data security and other human resources, employee benefits and health care concerns.  Her many highly regarded publications on privacy and data security concerns include “Privacy Invasions of Medical Care-An Emerging Perspective.” ERISA Litigation Manual. BNA, 2003-2009; “Privacy & Securities Standards-A Brief Nutshell.” BNA Tax Management and Compliance Journal. February 4, 2005; “Cybercrime and Identity Theft: Health Information Security beyond HIPAA.” ABA Health eSource. May, 2005 and many others.  She also regularly conducts training on HIPAA and other privacy and data security compliance and other risk management matters for a broad range of organizations including the Association of State and Territorial Healthcare Organizations (ASTHO), the Los Angeles County Health Department, a multitude of health plans and their sponsors, health care providers, the American Bar Association, SHRM, the Society for Professional Benefits Administrators and many others.t 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 additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.

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, 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 resources including:

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©2011 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.

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