2019 OCR Enforcement Shows Getting Defensibly HIPAA Compliant Necessary In 2020!

The $65,000 payment and corrective action plan commitments West Georgia Ambulance, Inc. (“West Georgia”) is making to settle Department of Health & Human Services Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) charges it recurrently violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”) Security Rule and other 2019 HIPAA enforcement sends a clear warning to other HIPAA-covered health plans, health care providers, health care clearighouses and their business associates (“covered entities”) to maintain and be prepared to defend their own HIPAA compliance.

The Western Georgia Resolution Agreement and Corrective Action Plan (“Resolution Agreement”) OCR announced on December 30, 2019 resolves charges resulting from an OCR investigation initiated in response to a HIPAA breach report the Georgia based ambulance company filed in 2013 in which the company, which provides emergency and non-emergency ambulance services in Carroll County, Georgia,  disclosed the loss of an unencrypted laptop containing the protected health information (PHI) of 500 individuals. The breach occurred when an unencrypted laptop fell off the back bumper of an ambulance. The laptop was not recovered.  West Georgia reported that exactly 500 individuals were affected by the breach.

In the course of its investigation of the breach report, OCR’s investigation uncovered long-standing noncompliance with the HIPAA Rules, including failures to conduct a risk analysis, provide a security awareness and training program, and implement HIPAA Security Rule policies and procedures. Specifically, the Resolution Agreement states that West Georgia:

  • Did not conduct an accurate and thorough risk analysis of the potential risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of all of its ePHI. See 45 C.F.R. § 164.308(a)(1)(ii)(A);
  • Failed to have a HIPAA security training program, and failed to provide security training to its employees. See 45 C.F.R. § 164.308(a)(5);
  • Failed to implement Security Rule policies or procedures. See 45 C.F.R. § 164.316; and
  • Despite OCR’s investigation and technical assistance, “did not take meaningful steps to address their systemic failures.”

To resolve its exposure to the substantially higher civil monetary penalties that OCR could impose for violations of this nature, West Georgia agreed to pay a $65,000 resolution payment to OCR and implement and comply with a corrective action plan that in addition to requiring West Georgia to correct the compliance deficiencies, also subjects West Georgia to two years of OCR monitoring and oversight.

The Resolution Agreement and corrective action plan carry a number of important messages for other health care providers and other Covered Entities.  First, the OCR enforcement action against West Georgia coming at the end of yet another heavy HIPAA enforcement year by OCR reminds Covered Entities that OCR is serious about HIPAA enforcement on the heels of its 2018 HIPAA record setting collection of $28.7 million in civil monetary penalties and resolution payments including the single largest individual HIPAA settlement in history of $16 million with Anthem, Inc. See OCR Concludes 2018 with All-Time Record Year for HIPAA Enforcement.  While not topping this record, OCR during 2019 now has collected civil monetary penalties and resolution payments totaling more than $15 million from HIPAA Covered Entities and their business associates including:

Second, the Resolution Agreement and various other smaller settlements during the year show HIPAA compliance and enforcement is a concern for smaller provideres and other covered entities, not juswt the huge ones.  While the $65,000 settlement payment required by the Resolution Agreement is substantially smaller than the amounts of the civil monetary penalties and many of resolution payments OCR collected in its other 2019 enforcement actions, the West Georgia and other 2019 enforcement actions demonstrate the teeth behind the warning in the OCR Press Release announcing the West Georgia Resolution Agreement from OCR Director Roger Severino that“All providers, large and small, need to take their HIPAA obligations seriously.”  With OCR promises to keep up its vigorous investigation and enforcement of the HIPAA requirements, every Covered Entity and business associate should take the necessary steps to verify and maintain their HIPAA compliance and to be prepared to defend their compliance under the Privacy, Security, Breach Notification and HIPAA access and other individual rights mandates of HIPAA.

Third, OCR’s statement in the Resolution Agreement about the failure by West Georgia to meaningfully act to correct compliance deficiencies and cooperate in other corrective action during the period following the breach report highlights the importance for covered entities involved in a breach or other dealings with OCR on a potential compliance concern to behave appropriately to  express and exhibit the necessary concern OCR expects regarding the compliance issue to position themselves to request and receive the clemency OCR is empowered under HIPAA to extend when deciding the sanctions for any noncompliance.

Of course meeting the requirements of HIPAA is not the only concern that covered entities should consider as they review and tightened their HIPAA and other privacy and data security procedures.  Health care providers and other covered entities also should keep in mind their other obligations to protect patient and other confidential information under other federal laws, the requirements of which also are ever-evolving.  For instance, on January 1, 2020 Texas providers like other Texas businesses will become subject to a shortened deadline for providing notice of data breaches under a new law enacted by the Texas Legislature in its last session.  Arrangements should be designed to fulfill all of these requirements as well as any ethical or contractual.

Covered entities also should keep in mind that violations of HIPAA can have implications well beyond HIPAA.ramifications beyond HIPAA itself.  For instance, heath care providers can face disqualification from federal program participation, licensing and ethics discipline and other professional consequences.  Health plans and their fiduciaries also may face Department of Labor and other fiduciary claims, while insurers can face licensing and other regulatory consequences. The Labor Department followed up on previous warnings that health plan fiduciaries duties include a fiduciary duty to protect health plan data by adding HIPAA compliance to certain health plan audits. Insurers, third of art administrators and others also can face duties and liabilities under state insurance and data privacy laws from regulator or private litigant actions.

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.

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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 the Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights, 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 Group, Ms. Stamer has extensive legal, operational, and public policy experience advising and representing health care, health care and other entities about HIPAA and other privacy, data security, confidentiality and other matters.

Ms. 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, public and private primary, secondary, and other educational institutions, 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 recurrently worked extensively with public school districts and public and private primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, academic medical, and other educational institutions, insured and self-insured health plans; 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, employers; and federal and state legislative, regulatory, investigatory and enforcement bodies and agencies on health care, education, and other data privacy, security, use, protection and disclosure; disability and other educational rights; workforce, and a host of other risk management and compliance concerns.

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, ant kickback, 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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