Employee & Other Whistleblower Complaints Common Source of HIPAA Privacy & Other Complaints


Employer and other health plan sponsors, administrators, insurers and their business associates should heed both the lesson about properly protecting health plan documents with protected health information and the more subtle lesson about the role of employees and other whistleblowers in bringing these violations to the attention of regulators contained in the latest Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA) resolution agreement as well as act to manage their potential employment related liability to workforce members reporting these violations

HIPAA’s Privacy, Security and Breach Notification Rules generally prohibit  health plans, health care providers, health plans (Covered Entities) and their business associates from creating, using, accessing or disclosing protected health information except as allowed by HIPAA.  In addition, HIPAA requires covered entities both to meet detailed criteria for protecting electronic protected health information and also to take reasonable steps to protect all protected health information, as well as meet other business associate, breach notification, and individual rights requirements.

Parkview Resolution Agreement

Late last month, the Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights (HHS) announced that complaints of a retiring physician over the mishandling of her patient records by Parkview Health System, Inc. (Parkview) prompted the investigation that lead Parkview to agree to pay $800,000 to settle charges that it violated HIPAA’s Privacy Rule.

The resolution agreement settles charges lodged by HHS based on an OCR investigation into the retiring physician’s allegations that Parkview violated the HIPAA Privacy Rule by failing to properly safeguard the records when it returned them to the physician following her retirement.

As a covered entity under the HIPAA Privacy Rule, HIPAA requires that Parkview appropriately and reasonably safeguard all protected health information in its possession, from  acquisition to disposition.

In an investigation prompted by the physician’s complaint, OCR found that Parkview breached this responsibility in its handling of certain physician patient records in helping the physician to transition to retirement.

According to OCR, in September 2008, Parkview took custody of medical records of approximately 5,000 to 8,000 patients while assisting the retiring physician to transition her patients to new providers, and while considering the possibility of purchasing some of the physician’s practice.

Subsequently on June 4, 2009, Parkview employees, with notice that the physician was not at home, left 71 cardboard boxes of these medical records unattended and accessible to unauthorized persons on the driveway of the physician’s home, within 20 feet of the public road and a short distance away from a heavily trafficked public shopping venue. OCR concluded this conduct violated the Privacy Rule.

To settle OCR’s charges that these actions violated HIPAA, OCR has agreed to pay the $800,000 resolution amount and to adopt and implement a corrective action plan requiring Parkview to revise their policies and procedures, train staff, and provide an implementation report to OCR.

HIPAA Violations Carry Significant Liability

As demonstrated by the Parkview resolution agreement, violation of HIPAA  can carry significant civil and potentially even criminal liability.  The criminal provisions of HIPAA as well as the express terms of the Privacy Rules require that covered entities and their business associates adopt and administer specific compliance programs and practices to provide to compliance with HIPAA and HIPAA’s breach notification rules and the Privacy Regulations may require self-reporting of violations when and if violations occur.  Since HIPAA includes potential criminal liability, violations of its provisions can trigger organizational liability for covered entities and their business associates.  Consequently, HIPAA compliance also generally should be part of the Federal Sentencing Guideline Compliance Program of every covered entity and business associate.

The HITECH Act tightened certain rules applicable to the use, access or disclosure of protected health information by covered entities and their business associates.  In addition, the HITECH Act added breach notification rules, extended direct responsibility for compliance with HIPAA to business associates, increased penalties for noncompliance with HIPAA and made other refinements to HIPAA’s medical privacy rules and made certain other changes.  Furthermore, enforcement of HIPAA and the resulting penalties have increased since the HITECH Act took effect.

With OCR stepping up both audits and enforcement and penalties for violations higher than ever since the HITECH Act amended HIPAA, Covered Entities and business associates should act quickly to review and update their policies, practices and training to implement any adjustments needed to maintain compliance and manage other risks under these ever-evolving HIPAA standards.

When conducting these efforts, Covered Entities and business associates not only carefully watch for and react promptly to new OCR guidance and enforcement actions, but also document their commitment and ongoing compliance and risk management activities to help support their ability to show their organization maintains the necessary “culture of compliance” commitment needed to mitigate risks in the event of a breach or other HIPAA violation and take well-documented, reasonable steps to encourage their business associates to do the same.    When carrying out these activities, most covered entities and business associates also will want to take steps to monitor potential responsibilities and exposures under other federal and state laws like the privacy and data security requirements that often apply to personal financial information, trade secrets or other sensitive data under applicable federal and state laws and judicial precedent.

A series of supplemental guidance issued by the Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in recent weeks is giving health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses (Covered Entities) and their business associates even more to do in reviewing and updating their policies, practices and training for handing protected health information (PHI) beyond bringing their policies and practices into line with OCR’s restatement and update to the Modifications to the HIPAA Privacy, Security, Enforcement, and Breach Notification Rules Under the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act; Other Modifications to the HIPAA Rules; Final Rule (Omnibus Final Rule) OCR published January 25, 2013.

Covered Entities generally have been required to comply with most requirements the Omnibus Final Rule’s restated regulations restating OCR’s regulations implementing the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy, Security and Breach Notification Rules to reflect HIPAA amendments enacted by the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act since the Omnibus Final Rule took effect on March 26, 2013 and to have updated business associate agreements in place since September 23, 2013.  Meanwhile, the Omnibus Final Rule generally has required business associates have updated business associate agreements in place and otherwise to have come into compliance with all of the applicable requirements of the Omnibus Final Rule since September 23, 2013.  Although these deadlines are long past, many Covered Entities and business associates have yet to complete the policy, process and training updates required to comply with the rule changes implemented in  the Omnibus Final Rule.

Even if a Covered Entity or business associate completed the updates required to comply with the Omnibus Final Rule, however, recent supplemental guidance published by OCR means that most organizations now have even more work to do on HIPAA compliance. This includes the following supplemental guidance on its interpretation and enforcement of HIPAA against Covered Entities and business associates published by OCR since January 1, 2014 alone:

Beyond this 2014 guidance, Covered Entities and their business associates also should look at enforcement actions and data as well as other guidance OCR issued during 2013 after publishing the Omnibus Final Rule such as:

With OCR stepping up both audits and enforcement and penalties for violations higher than ever since the HITECH Act amended HIPAA, Covered Entities and business associates should act quickly to review and update their policies, practices and training to implement any adjustments needed to maintain compliance and manage other risks under these ever-evolving HIPAA standards.

When conducting these efforts, Covered Entities and business associates not only carefully watch for and react promptly to new OCR guidance and enforcement actions, but also document their commitment and ongoing compliance and risk management activities to help support their ability to show their organization maintains the necessary “culture of compliance” commitment needed to mitigate risks in the event of a breach or other HIPAA violation and take well-documented, reasonable steps to encourage their business associates to do the same.    When carrying out these activities, most covered entities and business associates also will want to take steps to monitor potential responsibilities and exposures under other federal and state laws like the privacy and data security requirements that often apply to personal financial information, trade secrets or other sensitive data under applicable federal and state laws and judicial precedent.

Watch & Manage Whistleblower Liability From HIPAA Violations & Compliance

Beyond illustrating the potential HIPAA-associated penalties that can result from failing to comply with HIPAA, the Parkview resolution agreement also illustrates the risks that current or former workforce members and others acting as whistleblowers play in helping OCR to identify HIPAA violations.  HIPAA and most other laws prohibited covered entities from forbidding or retaliating against a person for objecting to or reporting the concern and offer whistleblowers potential participation in the reporting and prosecution of violations.  Beyond these specific federal HIPAA protections, state courts often recognize firing or otherwise retaliating against workforce members or others for exercising rights protected by HIPAA or other federal anti-retaliation statutes as a basis for a state whistleblower or other retaliatory discharge claim.  See, e.g. Faulkner v. Department of State Health Servs., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 22419 (N.D. Tex. Mar. 19, 2009).  See also Court Recognizes Retaliation For Filing HIPAA Privacy Complaint As Basis For Texas Whistleblower Claim.    With retaliation and other whistleblower complaints becoming increasingly common and judgments from these claims rising, covered entities and their business associates need to include appropriate employment liability risk management processes and procedures in their HIPAA compliance processes and coordinate carefully with their human resources team and qualified employment counsel to manage the employment liability related risks associated with investigations and discipline activities under HIPAA.  Concurrently, Privacy Officers also should ensure that their organization’s human resources team understands the HIPAA rules and spot and properly refers to the privacy officer for investigation statements or other activities that may indicate that a HIPAA compliance or retaliation concern needs investigation or redress to avoid missing potential exposures hidden in the human resources processes that could reflect a practice of tolerance or retaliation unacceptable to OCR.

 For Representation, Training & Other Resources

If you need assistance monitoring these and other regulatory policy, enforcement, litigation or other developments, or to review or respond to these or other workforce, benefits and compensation, performance and risk management, compliance, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer may be able to help.

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law, Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefit & Other Compensation Arrangements Group, Co-Chair and Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Welfare Plan Committee, Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Plans Committee, 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 plan and employee benefit, insurance, financial services, employer and 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. The scribe for the ABA JCEB Annual Agency Meeting with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) for the past several years who has worked on medical and other privacy concerns throughout her career, 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, defends covered entities and business associates against OCR, FTC and other privacy and data security investigations, serves as special counsel in litigation arising from these concerns and is the author of several highly regarded publications on HIPAA and other privacy and security concerns.

Ms. Stamer also regularly works with OCR, FTC, USSS, FBI and state and local law enforcement on privacy, data security, health care, benefits and insurance and other matters, 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 third 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.

You can review other recent human resources, employee benefits and internal controls publications and resources and additional information about the employment, employee benefits and other experience of the Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, PC here. 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 www.cynthiastamer.com or by registering to participate in the distribution of these and other updates on our HR & Employee Benefits Update here 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©2014 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Limited, non-exclusive right to republished granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc. All other rights reserved.

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