Healthcare providers, health plans, healthcare clearinghouses and their business associates (Covered Entities) can’t disclose the name or other protected health care information about a patient in press releases or other announcements without prior authorization from the patient. That’s the clear lesson Covered Entities should learn from the $2.4 million payment to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that the largest not-for-profit health system in Southeast Texas, Memorial Hermann Health System (MHHS) is paying to settle charges it violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule by issuing a press release with the name and other protected health information (PHI) about a patient without the patient’s prior HIPAA-compliant authorization under a Resolution Agreement and Corrective Action Plan (Resolution Agreement) announced May 10, 2017 by HHS Office of Civil Rights (OCR).
The Resolution Agreement resolves OCR charges the operator of 13 hospitals, eight Cancer Centers, three Heart & Vascular Institutes, and 27 sports medicine and rehabilitation centers violated the Privacy Rule that resulted from an OCR compliance review of MHHS triggered by multiple media reports suggesting that MHHS improperly disclosed the name and other details about a patient arrested and charged with presenting an allegedly fraudulent identification card to office staff at an MHHS’s clinic after MHHS clinic staff alerted law enforcement of suspicions the patient was presenting false identification to the clinic. According to OCR, after law enforcement investigated and arrested the patient, MHHS published a press release concerning the incident in which MHHS senior management approved the impermissible disclosure of the patient’s PHI by adding the patient’s name in the title of the press release without securing prior authorization of the patient.
While OCR concluded the report to law enforcement allowable under the Privacy Rule, OCR found MHHS violated the Privacy Rule by issuing the press release disclosing the patient’s name and other PHI without authorization from the patient and also by failing to timely document the sanctioning of its workforce members for impermissibly disclosing the patient’s information.
To resolve and avoid the potential Civil Monetary Penalties that HIPAA could authorize OCR to impose for the alleged Privacy Rule violation, MHHS agrees in the Resolution Agreement to pay OCR a $2.4 million monetary settlement and implement a corrective action plan that obligates MHHS to update and train its workforce on its policies and procedures on safeguarding PHI from impermissible uses and disclosures including specific instructions and procedures to:
- Address (a) Uses and disclosures for which an authorization is required, including to the media, to public officials, and on the internet; (b) Disclosures for law enforcement purposes; and (c) Uses and disclosures for health oversight activities;
- Identify MHHS personnel or representatives whom workforce members, agents, or business associates may contact in the event of any inquiry or concern regarding compliance with HIPAA in relation to these activities;
- Internal reporting procedures requiring all workforce members to report to the designated person or office at the earliest possible time any potential violations of the Privacy, Security or Breach Notification Rules or of MHHS’ privacy and security policies and procedures and MHHS promptly to investigate and address all received reports in a timely manner; and
- Application and documentation of appropriate sanctions (which may include retraining or other instructive corrective action, depending on the circumstances) against members of MHHS’ workforce, including senior level management, who fail to comply with the Privacy, Security or Breach Notification Rules or MHHS’ privacy and security policies and procedures, including a description of the sanctions; a timeframe in which MHHS will apply and document sanctions for violations of the HIPAA Rules or of MHHS’ privacy, security or breach policies or procedures; the manner in which MHHS will document the sanctions; and where MHHS will store or retain such documentation (e.g., personnel file).
The corrective action plan in the Resolution Agreement also requires all MHHS facilities to attest to their understanding of permissible uses and disclosures of PHI, including disclosures to the media and others.
Covered entities should keep in mind the MHHS Resolution Agreement is the latest in a series of OCR enforcement actions and resolution agreements highlighting the need for Covered Entities to adopt and use appropriate policies and procedures to prevent wrongful disclosures of PHI to the media or public. For instance, in June, 2013, OCR required Shasta Regional Medical Center (SRMC) to pay a $275,000 settlement payment and implement a comprehensive corrective action plan to resolve OCR charges stemming from SRMC’s disclosure of PHI about a patient to members of the media and its workforce in an effort to respond to accusations the patient made that SRMC engaged in fraud and other misconduct. See HIPAA Sanctions Triggered From Covered Entity Statements To Media, Workforce. In contrast, the $2.2 million resolution agreement that OCR required New York Presbyterian Hospital for improperly allowing a film crew to film hospital patients in violation of HIPAA was almost 10 times greater than the SRMC penalty and was accompanied by OCR’s publication OCR of specific additional guidance warning Covered Entities against improper disclosures to the media. See $2 Million+ HIPAA Settlement, FAQ Warn Providers Protect PHI From Media, Other Recording Or Use.
Following on the heels of this previous guidance and prior enforcement actions warning Covered Entities against wrongful disclosure to the media, the MHHS Resolution Agreement sends a strong message to Covered Entities that they should expect little sympathy if their organizations improperly share PHI with the media. OCR’s announcement of the MHHS Resolution Agreement, for instance quotes OCR Director Roger Severino with stating that “Senior management should have known that disclosing a patient’s name on the title of a press release was a clear HIPAA Privacy violation that would induce a swift OCR response.” The announcement goes on to quote Director Severino further as stating, “This case reminds us that organizations can readily cooperate with law enforcement without violating HIPAA, but that they must nevertheless continue to protect patient privacy when making statements to the public and elsewhere.”
Conduct Entity-Wide Risk Assessment & Review & Tighten Media Relations Policies, Processes & Training ASAP
Covered entities should heed the warning by conducting a risk assessment of their organization’s susceptibility to potential improper disclosures to media or others and reviewing and implementing necessary written policies, procedures and training to prevent the improper disclosure of patient PHI to media or others unless the Covered Entity either secures prior HIPAA-compliant authorization from the patient or can prove the disclosure falls squarely under an exception to the Privacy Rule’s prohibition against disclosure of PHI without authorization except as allowed by the Privacy Rule.
Taking these and other needed steps to evaluate, and strengthen and enforce as needed, risk assessments, policies, procedures, and training to prevent wrongful use, access or disclosure of PHI to the media or others is particularly critical in light of the ongoing tightening of expectations, and rising enforcement and sanctions for HIPAA violations since Congress amended HIPAA in 2009. See OCR Audit Program Kickoff Further Heats HIPAA Privacy Risks; HIPAA Heats Up: HITECH Act Changes Take Effect & OCR Begins Posting Names, Other Details Of Unsecured PHI Breach Reports On Website.
Based on experiences reported in the MHHS and other similar resolution agreements, Covered Entities also generally will want to ensure that their policies, procedures and training extend to all potential sources of communications that could involve patient information and make clear that the Privacy Rule restrictions must be followed even if the circumstances involve allegations of misconduct, special performance by healthcare providers or others that it would benefit the organization or certain individuals to have known to the public, or other circumstances likely to be of interest to the media or other parties.
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.
In conducting this analysis and risk assessment, it will be important that Covered Entities include, but also look beyond the four corners of their Privacy Policies to ensure that their review and risk assessment identifies and assesses and addresses compliance risks on an entity wide basis. This entity-wide assessment should include both communications and requests for information normally addressed to the Privacy Officer as well as requests and communications that could arise in the course of media or other public relations, practice transition, workforce communication and other operations not typically under the direct oversight and management of the Privacy Officer. For this reason, Covered Entities also generally will not only to adopt and implement specific policies, processes and training in these other departments to prohibit and prevent inappropriate disclosures of PHI in the course of those departments operations. It also may be advisable to pre-established processes for reviewing media or other communications for potential PHI content and require prior review of any proposed public relations and other internal or external communications containing patient PHI or other information by the privacy officer, legal counsel or another suitably qualified party.
Because of the high risk that the preparation or review of media or other public communications reports will involve the use and disclosure of PHI, Covered Entities also generally should verify that all outside media or public relations, legal, or other outside service providers participating in the investigation, response or preparation or review of communications to the media or others both are covered by signed business associate agreements that fulfill the Privacy Rule and other requirements of HIPAA as well as possess detailed knowledge and understanding of the Privacy and Security Rules suitable to participate in and help safeguard the Covered Entity against violations of these and other Privacy Rules. See e.g., Latest HIPAA Resolution Agreement Drives Home Importance Of Maintaining Current, Signed Business Associate Agreements.
About The Author
Recognized by LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as a “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%/ the highest) and “Top Rated Lawyer,” with special recognition as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Health Care,” “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: Erisa & Employee Benefits” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, the author of this update is widely known for her 29 plus years’ of work in health care, health benefit, health policy and regulatory affairs and other health industry concerns as a practicing attorney and management consultant, thought leader, author, public policy advocate and lecturer.
Throughout her adult life and nearly 30-year legal career, Ms. Stamer’s legal, management and governmental affairs work has focused on helping health industry, health benefit and other organizations and their management use the law, performance and risk management tools and process to manage people, performance, quality, compliance, operations and risk. Highly valued for her rare ability to find pragmatic client-centric solutions by combining her detailed legal and operational knowledge and experience with her talent for creative problem-solving, Ms. Stamer supports these organizations and their leaders on both a real-time, “on demand” basis as well as outsourced operations or special counsel on an interim, special project, or ongoing basis with strategic planning and product and services development and innovation; workforce and operations management, crisis preparedness and response as well as to prevent, stabilize and cleanup legal and operational crises large and small that arise in the course of operations.
As a core component of her work, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively throughout her career with health care providers, health plans and insurers, managed care organizations, health care clearinghouses, their business associates, employers, banks and other financial institutions, management services organizations, professional associations, medical staffs, accreditation agencies, auditors, technology and other vendors and service providers, and others on legal and operational compliance, risk management and compliance, public policies and regulatory affairs, contracting, payer-provider, provider-provider, vendor, patient, governmental and community relations and matters including extensive involvement advising, representing and defending public and private hospitals and health care systems; physicians, physician organizations and medical staffs; specialty clinics and pharmacies; skilled nursing, home health, rehabilitation and other health care providers and facilities; medical staff, accreditation, peer review and quality committees and organizations; billing and management services organizations; consultants; investors; technology, billing and reimbursement and other services and product vendors; products and solutions consultants and developers; investors; managed care organizations, insurers, self-insured health plans and other payers; and other health industry clients to manage and defend compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing and other operations and risk management concerns. A core focus of this work includes work to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; comply with requirements, investigate and respond to Board of Medicine, Health, Nursing, Pharmacy, Chiropractic, and other licensing agencies, Department of Aging & Disability, FDA, Drug Enforcement Agency, OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, Department of Labor, IRS, HHS, DOD, FTC, SEC, CDC and other public health, Department of Justice and state attorneys’ general and other federal and state agencies; dealings with JCHO and other accreditation and quality organizations; investigation and defense of private litigation and other federal and state health care industry investigations and enforcement; insurance or other liability management and allocation; process and product development; managed care, physician and other staffing, business associate and other contracting; evaluation, commenting or seeking modification of regulatory guidance, and other regulatory and public policy advocacy; training and discipline; 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.
Author of leading works on HIPAA and other privacy and data security works and the scribe leading the American Bar Association Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Annual Agency Meeting with OCR, her experience includes extensive compliance, risk management and data breach and other crisis event investigation, response and remediation under HIPAA and other data security, privacy and breach laws. Heavily involved in health care and health information technology, data and related process and systems development, policy and operations innovation and a Scribe for ABA JCEB annual agency meeting with OCR for many years who has authored numerous highly regarded works and training programs on trade secret, HIPAA and other medical, consumer, insurance, tax, and other privacy and data security, Ms. Stamer also is widely recognized for her extensive work and leadership on leading edge health care and benefit policy and operational issues including meaningful use and EMR, billing and reimbursement, quality measurement and reimbursement, 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 many other concerns.
In connection with this work, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively with health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses, their business associates, employers and other plan sponsors, banks and other financial institutions, and others on risk management and compliance with HIPAA, FACTA, trade secret and other information privacy and data security rules, including the establishment, documentation, implementation, audit and enforcement of policies, procedures, systems and safeguards, investigating and responding to known or suspected breaches, defending investigations or other actions by plaintiffs, OCR and other federal or state agencies, reporting known or suspected violations, business associate and other contracting, commenting or obtaining other clarification of guidance, training and enforcement, and a host of other related concerns. Her clients include public and private health care providers, health insurers, health plans, technology and other vendors, and others.
Her work includes both regulatory and public policy advocacy and thought leadership, as well as advising and representing a broad range of health industry and other clients about policy design, drafting, administration, business associate and other contracting, risk assessments, audits and other risk prevention and mitigation, investigation, reporting, mitigation and resolution of known or suspected violations or other incidents and responding to and defending investigations or other actions by plaintiffs, DOJ, OCR, FTC, state attorneys’ general and other federal or state agencies, other business partners, patients and others.
In addition to representing and advising these organizations, she also has conducted training on Privacy & The Pandemic for the Association of State & Territorial Health Plans, as well as HIPAA, FACTA, PCI, medical confidentiality, insurance confidentiality and other privacy and data security compliance and risk management for Los Angeles County Health Department, MGMA, ISSA, HIMMS, the ABA, SHRM, schools, medical societies, government and private health care and health plan organizations, their business associates, trade associations and others.
A former lead consultant to the Government of Bolivia on its Pension Privatization Project with extensive domestic and international public policy concerns in Pensions, healthcare, workforce, immigration, tax, education and other areas.
The American Bar Association (ABA) International Section Life Sciences Committee Vice Chair, a Scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) Annual OCR Agency Meeting, former Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, past ABA JCEB Council Representative, past Board President of Richardson Development Center (now Warren Center) for Children Early Childhood Intervention Agency, past North Texas United Way Long Range Planning Committee Member, and past Board Member and Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer has worked closely with a diverse range of physicians, hospitals and healthcare systems, DME, Pharma, clinics, health care providers, managed care, insurance and other health care payers, quality assurance, credentialing, technical, research, public and private social and community organizations, and other health industry organizations and their management deal with governance; credentialing, patient relations and care; staffing, peer review, human resources and workforce performance management; outsourcing; internal controls and regulatory compliance; billing and reimbursement; physician, employment, vendor, managed care, government and other contracting; business transactions; grants; tax-exemption and not-for-profit; licensure and accreditation; vendor selection and management; privacy and data security; training; risk and change management; regulatory affairs and public policy and other concerns.
Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also has extensive health care reimbursement and insurance experience advising and defending health plans, health care providers, payers, and others about Medicare, Medicaid, Medicare and Medicaid Advantage, Tri-Care, self-insured group, association, individual and group and other health benefit programs and coverages including but not limited to advising public and private payers about coverage and program design and documentation, advising and defending providers, payers and systems and billing services entities about systems and process design, audits, and other processes; provider credentialing, and contracting; providers and payer billing, reimbursement, claims audits, denials and appeals, coverage coordination, reporting, direct contracting, False Claims Act, Medicare & Medicaid, ERISA, state Prompt Pay, out-of-network and other “nonpar,” insured, and other health care claims, prepayment, post-payment and other coverage, claims denials, appeals, billing and fraud investigations and actions and other reimbursement and payment related investigation, enforcement, litigation and actions.
A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, privacy and data security, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns.
A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares her thought leadership, experience and advocacy on these and other related concerns by her service in the leadership of the Solutions Law Press, Inc. Coalition for Responsible Health Policy, its PROJECT COPE: Coalition on Patient Empowerment, and a broad range of other professional and civic organizations including North Texas Healthcare Compliance Association, 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 (now Warren Center For Children); 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, past Representative and chair of various committees of ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits; an ABA Health Law Coordinating Council representative, 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, symposium and chair, faculty member 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), InsuranceThoughtLeaders.com, 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, HR.com, Employee Benefit News, Insurance Thought Leadership and many other prominent publications and speaks and conducts training for a broad range of professional organizations.
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