$1.6M HIPAA Penalty Largely Caused By Inadequate Security Assessments & Oversight


The $1.6 million civil monetary penalty (“CMP”) assessed against the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (“TX HHSC”) for violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (“HIPAA”) Privacy and Security Rules between 2013 and 2017 committed by a predecessor agency, the Department of Aging and Disability Services (“DADS”) illustrates the critical need for health plans and insurers and all other HIPAA covered entities and business associates to confirm the adequacy of their enterprise wide security assessment, oversight, and other HIPAA Privacy and Security compliance and risk management including documentation of the reassessment and updating of these materials and assessments in connection with any update or change in software, systems or other system and security relevant developments.

OCR imposed the CMPs against TX HHSC for violations of HIPAA OCR found DADS committed from 2015 to 2017, before it was reorganized into TX HHSC in September 2017.  Like most other large HIPAA CMPs and settlements paid to avoid CMPs, a review of the TX HSSC CMP events makes clear that the large penalty resulted mostly because of inadequate assessment and oversight of security, rather than the actual breach itself that prompted the investigation leading to the CMP assessment. Beyond the substantial HIPAA CMPs assessed, health plans, insurers, their fiduciaries and administrative or other service providers serving as business associates need to keep in mind their likely exposure to liability and expenses from fiduciary  responsibility breaches under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, state insurance and other data security and breach requireents, contracts and other pbligations.

Before its merger into TX HHSC, DADS was the Texas agency primarily responsible for providing and administering the state’s long-term care services for aging and intellectually and physically disabled people.  TX HHSC now administers and provides the services previously provided by DADS as part of its broader operation of state supported living centers; provision of mental health and substance use services; regulation of child care and nursing facilities; and administration of hundreds of other programs for people needing supplemental nutrition benefits, Medicaid and certain other assistance including those previously provided by DADS.

DADS Breaches & Violations

The $1.6 million CMPs assessment against TX HHSC resulted after OCR investigated a 2015 breach report made by DADS.  On June 11, 2015, DADS submitted a Breach Notification Report (“Report”) notifying OCR that on April 21, 2015 names, addresses, social security numbers, treatment information and other electronic protected health information (“ePHI”) of 6,617 individuals was viewable over the internet when a software coding flaw allowed prohibited access to ePHI with access credentials when DADS moved an internal application from a private, secure server to a public server.  OCR’s investigation determined that, in addition to that impermissible disclosure, DADS violated the HIPAA Security Rule by failing to conduct an enterprise-wide risk analysis and implement access and audit controls on Community Living Assistance and Support Services and Deaf Blind with Multiple Disabilities (“CLASS/DBMD”) program information systems and applications intended to collect and report information about “Utilization Management and Review” activities to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) for the CLASS/DBMD waiver programs.. The CMS waiver programs required DADS to collect and report to CMS applicant and enrollee community and institutional service choice, Level of Care, Plan of Care, waiver provider choice  and other waiver program performance data for CLASS and DBMD as part of a required evidentiary report on all §1915(c) waiver programs.  The CLASS/DBMD application glitch compromised the ePHI by allowing an undetermined number of unauthorized users to view the ePHI without verifying user credentials. TX HHSC learned of the breach from an unauthorized user who accessed ePHI in the application without being required to input user credentials. Because of inadequate audit controls, DADS was unable to determine how many unauthorized persons accessed individuals’ ePHI.

OCR initiated a compliance review of DADS on June 23, 2015 in response to the breach notification. As HIPAA Security Rule at 45 C.F.R. ·§ 164.312(a)(l) requires a covered entity to implement technical policies and procedures for electronic information systems that maintain ePHI to allow access only to those persons or software programs properly granted access rights under HIPAA Security Rule § 164.308(a)(4), OCR found that by placing the CLASS/DBMD application on their public server without requiring users to provide access credentials, TX HHSC violated HIPAA by failing to implement access controls on all of its systems and applications throughout its enterprise in violation of 45 C.F.R. § 164.312(a)(l).

The HIPAA Security Rule at 45 C.F.R. § 164.312(b) requires a covered entity to implement hardware, software, and/or procedural mechanisms that record and examine activity in information systems that contain or use ePHI.  In the course of its investigation, OCR requested in its June 23, 2015 Data Request that DADS provide a copy of its current HIPAA administrative and technical policies and procedures.  As DADS provided no evidence that the application was capable of auditing user access after it was moved to the unsecure public server as required by 45 C.F.R. § 164.312(b) with its response, OCR also concluded from its investigation that TX HHSC failed to implement audit controls to all of its systems and applications, like the application involved in the breach, as required by 45 C.F.R. § 164.312(b).

Beyond these violations, OCR also found that DADS also violated the HIPAA Security Rule by failing to conduct the required accurate and thorough enterprise wised risk analysis required by the HIPAA Security Rule.  In this respect, the HIPAA Security Rule at 45 C.F.R. § 164.308(a)(1)(ii)(A) requires a covered entity to conduct an accurate and thorough assessment of the potential risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of ePHI it holds.  In its August 31, 2015 response to OCR’s Data Request dated July 23, 2015, DADS acknowledged that, while it had performed ”risk assessment activities” on individual applications and servers, it never performed an “agency-wide” security risk analysis.   On July 28, 2017, OCR received the documentation that DADS represented to be the documentation of its risk analysis.  After reviewing this evidence, OCR additionally found DADS violated the HIPAA Security Rule by failing to conduct an enterprise-wide risk analysis and implement access and audit controls.

Calculation & Assessment CMPs Totaling $1.6 Million

On May 23, 2018, OCR issued a Letter of Opportunity and informed TX HHSC that OCR’s investigation indicated that TX HHSC failed to comply with the Privacy and Security Rules, which remained unresolved despite OCR’s attempts to do so. The letter stated that pursuant to 45 C.F.R. § 160.312(a)(3), OCR was informing TX HHSC of the preliminary indications of non-compliance and providing TX HHSC with an opportunity to submit written evidence of mitigating factors under 45 C.F.R. § 160.408 or affirmative defenses under 45 C.F.R. § 160.410 for OCR’s consideration in making a CMP determination under 45 C.F.R. § 160.404. The letter identified each area of noncompliance.  It also stated that TX HHSC also could submit written evidence to support a waiver of a CMP for the indicated areas of non-compliance.

Although the designated representative for TX HHSC as DADS successor received the Letter of Opportunity on May 24, 2018, . TX HHSC did not provide any written evidence of mitigating factors under 45 C.F.R. § 160.408 or affirmative defenses under 4S C.F.R. § 160.410 for OCR’s consideration in making the CMP determination or submit any written evidence to support a waiver of a CMP for the indicated areas of non-compliance.  Accordingly, after securing the requisite approval from the Justice Department, OCR issued a Notice of Proposed Determination of Civil Monetary Penalties (“Proposed CMP”) on July 29, 2019.

As explained by the Proposed CMP, as amended by the HITECH Act, Section 13410, 42 U.S.C. § 1320d-5(a)(3), HIPAA authorizes OCR as the designated representative of the Secretary of HHS to impose CMPs against a covered entity for post-February 18, 2009 HIPAA Privacy or Security Rule violations.  These current CMP provisions provide the following rules for the assessment of CMPs for such violations:

  • A minimum of$100 for each violation where the covered entity or business associate did not know and, by exercising reasonable diligence, would not have known that the covered entity or business associate violated such provision, except that the total amount imposed on the covered entity or business associate for all violations of an identical requirement or prohibition during a calendar year may not exceed $25,000.
  • A minimum of$1,000 for each violation due to reasonable cause and not to willful neglect, except that the total amount imposed on the covered entity or business associate for all violations of an identical requirement or prohibition during a calendar year may not exceed $100,000. Reasonable cause means an act or omission in which a covered. entity or business associate knew, or by exercising reasonable diligence would have known, that the act or omission violated an administrative simplification provision, but in which the covered entity or business associate did not act with willful neglect.
  • A minimum of $10,000 for each violation due to willful neglect and corrected within 30 days, except that the total amount imposed on the covered entity or business associate for all violations of an identical requirement or prohibition during a calendar year may not exceed $250,000.
  • A minimum of$50,000 for each violation due to willful neglect and uncorrected within 30 days, except that the total amount imposed on the covered entity or business associate for all violations of an identical requirement or prohibition during a calendar year may not exceed $1,500,000.

By law, OCR adjusts the CMP ranges and calendar year cap for each penalty tier for inflation.  The adjusted amounts are applicable only to CMPs whose violations occurred after November 2, 2015.

The Proposed CMP included notice of the CMPs OCR intended to impose CMPs totaling $1.6 million for the violations.  Characterizing each of the violations as due to reasonable cause and not willful neglect, the Proposed CMP Notice made note that OCR was authorized by statute to assess penalties of up to $50,000 per day for each day of the identified violations due for reasonable cause, rather than willful neglect, but authorized OCR to adjust the penalties in light of aggravating and mitigating factors.  The Proposed CMP stated that in arriving at the lesser daily penalty amount, OCR considered as mitigating factors that:

  • The violations did not result in any known physical, financial, or reputational harm to any individuals nor did it hinder any individual’s ability to obtain health care;  and
  • TX HHSC immediately removed the application once it received a report that unauthorized users could access the ePHI of individual beneficiaries.

However, OCR also took note that it viewed DADS failure to act promptly to remediate the breach and to keep a commitment made to OCR in August, 2015 timely to conduct and complete the agency wide risk analysis by August 31, 2016 as an aggravating factor.  Considering these factors, the Proposed CMP notified TX HHSC that OCR intended to assess a daily penalty amount of$1,000 per day ($1,141 after November 2, 2015) per violation capped at $100,000 per calendar year per violation. Applying these amounts, the CMP notified TX HHSC that OCR intended to impose CMPs totaling $1.6 million, as follows:

  • Impermissible disclosures in violation of 45 C.F.R. § 164.502(a), a $100,000 CMP
  • Inadequate access controls in violation of 45 C.F .R. § 164.312(a)(l), a $500,000 CMP
  • Inadequate audit controls in violation of 45 C.F.R. § 164.312(b), a $500,000 CMP
  • Failure to perform required enterprise wide risk analysis in violation of 45 C.F.R. § 164.308(a)(l)(ii)(a), a $500,000.

After TX HHSC , as successor to DADS, did not file a request for hearing before an administrative law judge within the 90 days, OCR imposed the $1.6 million CMP in dated  October 25, 2019 made public on November 7, 2019.

Lessons For Other Health Plans, Insurers & Other HIPAA Exposed Entities

The latest in a growing series of multimillion dollar CMPs and Resolution Payments assessed and collected by OCR, the TX HHSC CMP illustrates the critical necessity for all covered entities and business both to take appropriate, well-documented action to prevent, timely discover and redress, and report ePHI breaches and otherwise comply with the otherwise applicable requirements of the HIPAA Privacy, Security and Breach Notification Rules including the conduct and continuous maintenance of appropriate enterprise wide security assessments, audits, and oversight.  With OCR promising to continue its enforcement, all covered entities and business associates should verify the existence and adequacy of their existing enterprise wide risk assessments and safeguards and procedures for monitoring, investigating potential security risks and other breaches and other HIPAA compliance oversight.  Beyond these compliance efforts, the TX HHSC and other CMP actions also drive home the strong advisability for covered entities or business associates that experience a known or potential breach or other violation promptly to investigate and mitigate potential breaches and other violations.

Beyond the direct HIPAA exposure, health plans and their fiduciaries also need to keep in mind that these violations also can create fiduciary liability risks for ERISA fiduciaries, state insurance and identity theft exposures for brokers and other service providers, contractual exposures for vendors, and other risks.  The Department of Labor recently has begun making inquiries about data security and privacy as part of its plan audits according to recent reports.

When managing HIPAA and other compliance and risks, health plans and other covered entities and business associates should seek assistance in conducting their assessments as well as responding to any preexisting and emergent breach or other compliance concerns within the scope of attorney-client privilege from qualified legal counsel with the necessary knowledge and experience of HIPAA and other federal and state laws, regulations and administrative and judicial decisions that define and shape their exposure.  In the event of a breach or other compliance concern, timely guidance and representation by legal counsel with both experience of these requirements and with dealing with OCR and other agencies may help mitigate exposures by expediting timely and appropriate response.

For More Information

We hope this update is helpful. For more information about this or other labor and employment developments, please contact the author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer via e-mail or via telephone at (214) 452 -8297.

Solutions Law Press, Inc. invites you receive future updates by registering on our Solutions Law Press, Inc. Website and participating and contributing to the discussions in our Solutions Law Press, Inc. LinkedIn SLP Health Care Risk Management & Operations Group, HR & Benefits Update Compliance Group, and/or Coalition for Responsible Health Care Policy About the Author

Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® 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 “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years of health industry and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications.

Scribe for the ABA JCEB Annual Agency Meeting with OCR, Vice Chair of the ABA International Section Life Sciences Committee, past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and the ABA RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation GroupMs. Stamer’s work throughout her 30 plus year career has focused heavily on working with health care and managed care, health and other employee benefit plan, insurance and financial services and other public and private organizations and their technology, data, and other service providers and advisors domestically and internationally with legal and operational compliance and risk management, performance and workforce management, regulatory and public policy and other legal and operational concerns.  As a part of this work, she has continuously and extensively worked with domestic and international hospitals, health care systems, clinics, skilled nursing, long term care, rehabilitation and other health care providers and facilities; medical staff, accreditation, peer review and quality committees and organizations; billing, utilization management, management services organizations, group purchasing organizations; pharmaceutical, pharmacy, and prescription benefit management and organizations; consultants; investors; EMR, claims, payroll and other technology, billing and reimbursement and other services and product vendors; products and solutions consultants and developers; investors; managed care organizations, self-insured health and other employee benefit plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries, administrators and service providers, insurers and other payers, health industry advocacy and other service providers and groups and other health and managed care industry clients as well as federal and state legislative, regulatory, investigatory and enforcement bodies and agencies.

Ms. Stamer is most widely recognized for her decades-long leading edge work, scholarship and thought leadership on health and other privacy and data security and other health industry legal, public policy and operational concerns.  This  involvement encompasses helping health care systems and organizations, group and individual health care providers, health plans and insurers, health IT, life sciences and other health industry clients prevent, investigate, manage and resolve  sexual assault, abuse, harassment and other organizational, provider and employee misconduct and other performance and behavior; manage Section 1557, Civil Rights Act and other discrimination and accommodation, and other regulatory, contractual and other compliance; vendors and suppliers; contracting and other terms of participation, medical billing, reimbursement, claims administration and coordination, Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, Medicare/Medicaid Advantage, ERISA and other payers and other provider-payer relations, contracting, compliance and enforcement; Form 990 and other nonprofit and tax-exemption; fundraising, investors, joint venture, and other business partners; quality and other performance measurement, management, discipline and reporting; physician and other workforce recruiting, performance management, peer review and other investigations and discipline, wage and hour, payroll, gain-sharing and other pay-for performance and other compensation, training, outsourcing and other human resources and workforce matters; board, medical staff and other governance; strategic planning, process and quality improvement; meaningful use, EMR, HIPAA and other technology,  data security and breach and other health IT and data; STARK, antikickback, insurance, and other fraud prevention, investigation, defense and enforcement; audits, investigations, and enforcement actions; trade secrets and other intellectual property; crisis preparedness and response; internal, government and third-party licensure, credentialing, accreditation, HCQIA and other peer review and quality reporting, audits, investigations, enforcement and defense; patient relations and care;  internal controls and regulatory compliance; payer-provider, provider-provider, vendor, patient, governmental and community relations; facilities, practice, products and other sales, mergers, acquisitions and other business and commercial transactions; government procurement and contracting; grants; tax-exemption and not-for-profit; privacy and data security; training; risk and change management; regulatory affairs and public policy; process, product and service improvement, development and innovation, and other legal and operational compliance and risk management, government and regulatory affairs and operations concerns. to establish, administer and defend workforce and staffing, quality, and other compliance, risk management and operational practices, policies and actions; 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; JCHO and other accreditation and quality organizations; private litigation and other federal and state health care industry actions: regulatory and public policy advocacy; training and discipline; enforcement;  and other strategic and operational concerns.

Author of leading works on HIPAA and a multitude of other health care, health plan and other health industry matters, 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 and a former Council Representative, Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, former Vice President and Executive Director of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, 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, and a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares her extensive publications and thought leadership as well as leadership involvement in a broad range of other professional and civic organizations. For more information about Ms. Stamer or her health industry and other experience and involvements, see www.cynthiastamer.com or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

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