$50K Settlement Shows Small Breach Reports Carry Enforcement Risk
Properly encrypt and protected electronic protected health information (ePHI) on laptops and in other mediums! That’s the clear message of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in its announcement of its first settlement under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Security Rule involving a breach of ePHI of fewer than 500 individuals by a HIPAA-covered entity, Hospice of North Idaho (HONI).
In announcing the settlement against HONI, OCR sent a clear message that OCR stands ready to penalize these health care providers, health plans, healthcare clearinghouses and their businesses associates (covered entities) when their failure to properly secure and protect ePHI on laptops or in other systems results in a breach of ePHI even when the breach affects fewer than 500 individuals.
OCR Director Leon Rodriguez reiterated OCR’s expectation that covered entities will properly encrypt ePHI on mobile or other devices in OCR’s announcement of the HONI settlement. “This action sends a strong message to the health care industry that, regardless of size, covered entities must take action and will be held accountable for safeguarding their patients’ health information.” said OCR Director Leon Rodriguez. “Encryption is an easy method for making lost information unusable, unreadable and undecipherable.”
In light of this latest clear warning, health plans and their fiduciaries, sponsors and administrators, health care providers, health care clearinghouses and their business associates should review plans, practices and data security as affecting ePHI and other protected health information on mobile and other devices.
HONI Settlement For Small Breach Notification
On January 2, 2013, OCR announced HONI will pay OCR $50,000 to settle potential HIPAA violations that occurred in connection with the theft of an unencrypted laptop computer containing ePHI. The HONI settlement is the first settlement involving a breach of ePHI affecting fewer than 500 individuals. Read the full HONI Resolution Agreement here.
OCR opened an investigation after HONI reported to HHS that an unencrypted laptop computer containing ePHI of 441 patients had been stolen in June 2010. HONI team members regularly use Laptops containing ePHI their field work. Over the course of the investigation, OCR discovered that HONI had not conducted a risk analysis to safeguard ePHI or have in place policies or procedures to address mobile device security as required by the HIPAA Security Rule. Since the June 2010 theft, HONI has taken extensive additional steps to improve their HIPAA Privacy and Security compliance program.
HIPAA Security & Breach Notification For ePHI
The HONI settlement is notable because it marks the first time OCR has sanctioned a covered entity as a result of an OCR investigation stemming from the covered entity’s report of a breach of unsecured protected health information involving fewer than 500 individuals under new breach notification rules added to HIPAA in 2009.
Under the originally enacted requirements of HIPAA, covered entities and their business associates are required to restrict the use, access and disclosure of protected health information and establish and administer various other policies and safeguards in relation to protected health information. Additionally, the Security Rules require specific encryption and other safeguards when covered entities collect, create, use, access, retain or disclose ePHI.
The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act amended HIPAA, among other things to tighten certain HIPAA requirements, expand its provisions to directly apply to business associates, as well as covered entities and to impose specific breach notification requirements. The HITECH Act Breach Notification Rule requires covered entities to report an impermissible use or disclosure of protected health information, or a “breach,” of 500 individuals or more (Large Breach) to the Secretary of HHS and the media within 60 days after the discovery of the breach. Smaller breaches affecting less than 500 individuals (Small Breach) must be reported to the Secretary on an annual basis. Since the Breach Notification Rule took effect, OCR’s announced policy has been to investigate all Large Breaches and such investigations have resulted in settlements or other corrective action in relation to various Large Breaches. Until now, however, OCR has not made public any resolution agreements requiring settlement payments involving any Small Breaches.
Enforcement Actions Highlight Growing HIPAA Exposures For Covered Entities
While the HONI settlement marks the first settlement on a small breach, this is not the first time OCR has sought sanctions against a covered entity for data breaches involving the loss or theft of unencrypted data on a Laptop, storage device or other computer device. In fact, OCR’s first resolution agreement – reached before Congress added the HIPAA Breach Notification Rules to HIPAA – stemmed from such a breach. Providence To Pay $100000 & Implement Other Safeguards. Breaches resulting from the loss or theft of unencrypted ePHI on mobile or other computer devices or systems has been a common basis of investigation and sanctions since that time, particularly since the Breach Notification rules took effect including breaches of ePHI involving compromised health plan information. See, e.g., OCR Hits Alaska Medicaid For $1.7M+ For HIPAA Security Breach. Coupled with statements by OCR about its intolerance, the HONI and other settlements provide a strong warning to covered entities to properly encrypt ePHI on mobile and other devices.
Furthermore, the HONI settlement also adds to growing evidence of the growing exposures that health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses and their business associates need to carefully and appropriately manage their HIPAA encryption and other Privacy and Security responsibilities. See OCR Audit Program Kickoff Further Heats HIPAA Privacy Risks; $1.5 Million HIPAA Settlement Reached To Resolve 1st OCR Enforcement Action Prompted By HITECH Act Breach Report; HIPAA Heats Up: HITECH Act Changes Take Effect & OCR Begins Posting Names, Other Details Of Unsecured PHI Breach Reports On Website. Covered entities are urged to heed these warning by strengthening their HIPAA compliance and adopting other suitable safeguards to minimize HIPAA exposures.
In the face of rising enforcement and fines, OCR’s initiation of HIPAA audits and other recent developments, covered entities and their business associates should tighten privacy policies, breach and other monitoring, training and other practices to reduce potential HIPAA exposures in light of recently tightened requirements and new enforcement risks.
In response to these expanding exposures, all covered entities and their business associates should review critically and carefully the adequacy of their current HIPAA Privacy and Security compliance policies, monitoring, training, breach notification and other practices taking into consideration OCR’s investigation and enforcement actions, emerging litigation and other enforcement data; their own and reports of other security and privacy breaches and near misses, and other developments to decide if additional steps are necessary or advisable.
New OCR HIPAA Mobile Device Educational Tool
While OCR enforcement of HIPAA has significantly increased, compliance and enforcement of the encryption and other Security Rule requirements of HIPAA are a special focus of OCR.
To further promote compliance with the Breach Notification Rule as it relates to ePHI on mobile devices, OCR and the HHS Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) recently kicked off a new educational initiative, Mobile Devices: Know the RISKS. Take the STEPS. PROTECT and SECURE Health Information. The program offers health care providers and organizations practical tips on ways to protect their patients’ health information when using mobile devices such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones. For more information, see here. For more information on HIPAA compliance and risk management tips, see here.
For Help With Compliance, Risk Management, Investigations, Policy Updates Or Other Needs
If you need help monitoring HIPAA and other health and health plan related regulatory policy or enforcement developments, or to review or respond to these or other 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.
If you need help with these or other compliance concerns, wish to ask about arranging for compliance audit or training, or need legal representation on other matters please contact Ms. Stamer at (469) 767-8872 or via e-mail here.
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