Federal Agencies Take Aim At Businesses, Benefit Plan Fiduciaries & Service Providers & Others With Lax CyberSecurity & CyberBreach Compliance; Build Defenses By Strengthening Internal & External Controls & Risk Managment

October 19, 2021

Businesses, their employee benefit plan fiduciaries, their employer and other sponsors, their record keepers, financial advisors and other service providers and other business partners face growing pressure to shore up cyber security and cyber breach compliance and other safeguards to defend against a slew of  new and ongoing federal cyber security and breach regulatory and enforcement the Biden-Harris Administration is rolling out in its effort to stem the rising tide of  cybersecurity incidents.

Agencies Targeting Businesses, US Entities & Their Leaders For CyberSecurity & CyberBreach Regulation & Enforcement

On October 6, 2021, Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco announced plans to civilly prosecute federal government contractors that fail to follow required cyber security standards under the False Claims Act under a new Civil Cyber-Fraud Initiative to be led by DOJ’s Civil Division’s Commercial Litigation Branch, Fraud Section.  While adding new exposures to the already substantial exposures  federal government contractors and grant recipients already face for failing to comply with applicable cybersecurity and cyberbreach notifications under federal and state laws, the Civil Cyber-Fraud Initiative also provides more evidence that the Biden-Harris Administration is serious about moving forward on its broader strategy to stem the recurrent waves of disruptive cyber breaches and other security incidents buffeting U.S. public and private institutions and citizens by ramping up cybersecurity regulations, oversight and enforcement against all U.S. organizations.   See e.g., New DOJ Civil Cyber-Fraud Initiative Pressures Federal Contractors & Grant Recipients To Tighten Cybersecurity Controls, Training & Other Safeguards. May 12, 2021 Executive Order on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity; July 28, 2021 National Security Memorandum on Improving Cybersecurity for Critical Infrastructure Control Systems.

The DOJ Civil Cyber-Fraud Initiative is the latest in a growing list of new regulatory and enforcement programs placing pressure on U.S. businesses and their leaders to get serious about cybersecurity.  Examples of some of the more far reaching of these new or continuing programs include:

  • Government Contractors. 

Under the Civil Cyber-Fraud Initiative, DOJ plans to use the False Claims Act to prosecute pursue cyber security related fraud by government contractors and grant recipients.  According to DOJ, the initiative will hold accountable entities or individuals that put U.S. information or systems at risk by knowingly providing deficient cyber security products or services, knowingly misrepresenting their cyber security practices or protocols, or knowingly violating obligations to monitor and report cyber security incidents and breaches. Federal contractors and grant recipients submitting claims for federal funds will be considered to have filed a false claim in violation of the False Claims Act if their cyber security and cyber breach practices are not compliant with applicable federal requirements when the payment is requested.

  • Federal Health Program Participating Health Care Providers And Plans. 

The DOJ Cyber-Fraud Initiative follows a similar interpretation of the Department of Health & Human Services (“HHS”) Office Inspector General (“OIG”) about the cybersecurity and cyberbreach compliance requirements health care providers and health plan issuers participating in Medicare and certain other federally funded health care programs (“Medicare Participating Providers”) are accountable to meet under the Conditions of Participation for those programs.  HHS OIG’s construction of these Conditions of Participation as including cybersecurity and cyberbreach compliance signs that Medical Participating Providers with deficient cybersecurity practices now may risk program disqualification and False Claims Act liability along with their already well-known exposure to civil monetary penalties under the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (“HIPAA”) protected health information privacy, security and data breach rules.

  • Health & Other Employee Benefit Plans. 

Health plans and other employee benefit plans, their fiduciaries, record keepers and service providers also face growing cybersecurity responsibilities and risks.  While HHS Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) continues to clarify and expand its interpretation, investigation and enforcement of HIPAA privacy, security and data breach rules against health plans, health care providers, health care clearinghouses and their business associates, the Department of Labor Employee Benefit Security Administration is turning up the heat on employee benefit plan fiduciaries to prudently protect their employee benefit plan assets and participants against cyberthreats.

On April 14, 2021, the Department of Labor Employee Benefit Security Administration (“EBSA”) made official its interpretation of the duty of prudence applicable to employee benefit plan fiduciaries under Section 404 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”) includes a duty for ERISA-covered employee benefit plan fiduciaries to take “appropriate precautions” to mitigate risks to plan participants and assets from both internal and external cybersecurity threats. The April 14 announcement makes official EBSA’s interpretation of the duty of prudence applicable to fiduciaries of ERISA-covered employee benefit plans as extending to a duty to act prudently to safeguard plan assets and plan participants against cybersecurity threats.

Concern about cyberthreats to private employee benefit plans covered by ERISA, their participants and beneficiaries has soared as massive data breaches  Federal Thrift Savings Plan, Anthem, Capital Onethe Public Employees Retirement Association of New Mexico and other employee benefit plans, their vendors and service providers increasingly have impacted millions of employee benefit plans, their accounts and participants.

While Congress chose to subject health plans to the detailed health privacy, security and breach rules of HIPAA and financial and certain other employee benefit plan service providers to consumer financial disclosure and data information security requirements of laws like Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act, and even employers and others conducting background and other credit checks to the  Fair Credit Reporting Act, growing awareness of the cyberthreat to employee benefits has not prompted Congress to date to extend those laws or otherwise to enact express statutory requirements for employee benefit plans and their fiduciaries.  However, private litigants and others increasingly have speculated that a fiduciary duty to safeguard plan asset against cyberthreats might be subsumed in the obligation of fiduciaries under Section 404 of ERISA at all times to act with “the care, skill, prudence, and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent man acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use in the conduct of an enterprise of a like character and with like aims.” See, e.g., See Record $16M Anthem HIPAA Settlement Signals Need to Tighten Your Health Plan HIPAA Compliance & Risk Management.

While EBSA has worked to formulate its recently announced positions, private litigants increasingly have begun debating the applicability and effect of ERISA on cyberbreaches involving ERISA regulated plans.  See e.g., In re Anthem, Inc. Data Breach Litig., No. 15-CV-04739-LHK, 2015 WL 7443779, at *1 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 24, 2015)(holding Anthem entitled under ERISA to remove claims to federal court and refusing employee benefit plan participants’ motion to remand to state court state claims arising from data breach); In re Anthem, Inc. Data Breach Litig., No. 15-MD-02617-LHK, 2016 WL 3029783 (N.D. Cal. May 27, 2016)(refusing to dismiss participant claims against non-Anthem defendants for lack of standing), motion reconsideration denied In re Anthem, Inc. Data Breach Litig., No. 15-CV-04739-LHK, 2016 WL 324386 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 27, 2016); Bartnett v. Abbott Lab’ys, No. 20-CV-02127, 2021 WL 428820, at *5 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 8, 2021) (dismissing breach of fiduciary duty claim based on inadequate evidence); In re: Premera Blue Cross Customer Data Sec. Breach Litig., No. 3:15-MD-2633-SI, 2017 WL 539578, at *21 (D. Or. Feb. 9, 2017). While mostly unsuccessful to date for procedural or factual sufficiency reasons, the preemption issues argued in many of these cases support concerns that under the proper circumstances ERISA could apply to breaches involving plans or their participants.  As these and other actions continue to wind their way through the courts, EBSA also has begun to acknowledge that ERISA plan fiduciaries duties of prudence include cybersecurity responsibilities.

EBSA’s first official recognition of a cybersecurity responsibility by plan fiduciaries appears in the Default Electronic Disclosure by Employee Pension Benefit Plans Under ERISA Final Rule (the “Electronic Disclosure Rule”), which took effect July 27, 2020 . In the discussion of its requirements regarding website-based electronic disclosures in Subpart (e)(3), the Electronic Disclosure Rule requires that “[T]he administrator must take measures reasonably calculated to ensure that the website protects the confidentiality of personal information relating to any covered individual.”  Similarly, the requirements for using e-mail to provide electronic disclosures in Subsection (k)(4) of the Electronic Disclosure Rule require the plan administrator to take “measures reasonably calculated to protect the confidentiality of personal information relating to the covered individual.”  While recognizing these cyber security responsibilities in the Electronic Disclosure Rule, however,  EBSA explained in the Preamble to the Electronic Disclosure Rule that it decided not to include more cumbersome cybersecurity requirements in the Electronic Disclosure Rule out of concern over the cost and other burdens of such requirements.  Nevertheless, the Electronic Disclosure Rule imposed a responsibility by plan fiduciaries of employee benefit plans making electronic disclosures to ensure that electronic recordkeeping systems have in place reasonable controls, adequate records management practice, and other measures calculated to protect Personally Identifiable Information.

EBSA’s April 14, 2021 reflects EBSA now views the fiduciary responsibilities of ERISA-covered employee benefit plan fiduciaries generally as including the responsibility to take “appropriate precautions” to mitigate risks to plan participants and assets from both internal and external cybersecurity threats. Beyond acknowledging a duty to take prudent steps to protect plans assets and participants against internal and external cybersecurity threats, EBSA also shared the following three resources to help plan sponsors, fiduciaries and participants to safeguard benefit plans and personal information against emerging cyber threats:

  • Tips for Hiring a Service Provider: Helps plan sponsors and fiduciaries prudently select a service provider with strong cybersecurity practices and monitor their activities, as ERISA requires.
  • Cybersecurity Program Best Practices: Assists plan fiduciaries and record-keepers in their responsibilities to manage cybersecurity risks.
  • Online Security Tips: Offers plan participants and beneficiaries who check their retirement accounts online basic rules to reduce the risk of fraud and loss.
  • Participants in Securities Markets, Market Infrastructure Providers & Vendors. 

Meanwhile the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) also has made clear its expectation that all firms participating in the securities markets, market infrastructure providers and vendors will appropriately monitor, assess and manage their cybersecurity risk profiles, including their operational resiliency. Consistent with the shared understanding of best cybersecurity practices shared with the agencies, the SEC guidance makes clear its market involved and impacting regulated entities are accountable for maintaining and enforcing appropriate internal and external controls to prevent, detect and redress cybersecurity threats, including appropriate board governance and risk management, access rights and controls, data loss prevention,mobile security, incident response and resiliency, vendor management, training and awareness and other practices.  See  SEC Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations Cybersecurity and Resiliency Observations.  Recently announced enforcement actions demonstrate that the SEC is acting on its promise to go after SEC regulated entities that breach these expectations.  See, e.g., SEC Announces Three Actions Charging Deficient Cybersecurity Procedures.

These and other recently announced federal regulatory and enforcement developments send a clear message to businesses and their leadership, employee benefit plan sponsors, fiduciaries, record keepers and other vendors, SEC securities market involved organizations and others to clean up their cybersecurity compliance and risk management.  Beyond the governmental enforcement risks these developments signal, these and other emerging regulatory developments provide added fuel for the already substantial private litigant and government complaints, investigations and prosecutions against businesses, their leaders, their employee benefit plan fiduciaries, record keepers and other service providers,and others.   and their leaders unable to defend the adequacy of their cybersecurity related practices.

Raise Cybersecurity Compliance & Defenses To Mitigate Risks & Liabilities

In the face of these developments, all businesses, employee benefit plan fiduciaries, their employer and other sponsors, record keepers and other vendors and their leaders should prioritize cybersecurity compliance, risk management, oversight and controls.  As part of these efforts, organizations and their leaders should move quickly to position themselves to defend against potential investigation and enforcement risks created by these emerging policies. These efforts should seek to ensure compliance with all applicable statutory, regulatory and contractual requirements as well as institutionalize the necessary operational controls to protect systems, data and operations from cyber breaches and other threats, to detect and redress cyber events promptly, and to ensure that the organization otherwise can demonstrate both their compliance efforts, as well as their timely prudent detection, investigation, reporting, mitigation and remediation in response to actual or suspected cyber threats or other compliance breaches.

Efforts should begin by taking carefully crafted, well-documented documented steps to prudently evaluate and strengthen  cybersecurity and breach safeguards and compliance, as well as prudently to assess and verify those of their vendors and others involved with their employee benefit plans or their administration within the scope of attorney-client privilege.

Assessments should take into account all existing required statutory, regulatory, and contractual controls and practices, documentation and other procedures.  In addition, organizations should consider the advisability of adopting other “best practice” safeguards or actions taking into account relevant agency guidance and resources,  government or other contracts, other industry or related standards, known and suspected breaches, “red flags” and threats, their own, their vendor and business partner and other risk profiles and experience, and other factors likely to be viewed as prudent under the circumstances.

In assessing, designing and administering the cybersecurity processes, organizations and their leaders should give due attention to assessing and addressing the adequacy of their internal and external controls to ensure the adequacy of their systems, processes, oversight and response practices and capabilities as of the time of the assessment and on an ongoing basis.  Beyond establishing required policies and formal controls, organization should ensure that their organizations have in place the necessary policies and practices to monitor and control cyberthreats arising from conduct and risks created by employees and other internal workforce, vendors and other parties interacting with the business and its operations.  As part of these efforts, most organizations will need to evaluate their contractual obligations and requirements for vendors, suppliers and others interacting with their businesses. Beyond general contractual compliance obligations, organizations should weigh requiring contractors, suppliers and other business partners to make specific commitments to maintain and monitor compliance and other risks, to provide timely notice and reports, to cooperate with audits and investigations necessary or advisable to respond to private or government complaints, government or other investigation, reporting or other requirements, their own compliance and risk assessments, audits and investigations and other compliance and risk management efforts.  Organizations also should give careful attention and review the adequacy of protections and responsibilities arising from contractual cybersecurity and breach notice, investigation, cooperation, indemnification,  insurance and other associated protections and cooperation.

Organizations also should consider establishing and administering processes for independent monitoring of regulatory, news, and other reports that could provide early warning of potential cybersecurity weaknesses, threats and breaches.

All processes should include appropriate governance, oversight and reporting to provide for ongoing monitoring and oversight necessary to identify and respond to evolving risks arising in the course of their operations as well as consistent practices for carefully documenting their compliance and risk management compliance efforts.

Because of the frequently high cost of breach investigation, response and mitigation, most organizations will want to consider securing cyber liability or other coverage, require vendors and other business partners to provide cyber liability indemnifications backed up with insurance or other adequate assurance of their ability to fulfill these financial responsibilities.

 More Information

We hope this update is helpful. For more information about or assistance with these or other workforce, internal controls and compliance or other legal, management or public policy 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 GroupHR & 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 HHS-OCR, and author of the “Medical Privacy” Chapter in the BNA/ERISA Litigation Treatise, the “Other Torts Chapter” in the BNA/ABA E-Heath & Other Torts Treatise, “Privacy and the Pandemic Workshop” for the Association of State and Territorial Health Plans, as well as a multitude of other highly regarded data privacy and security, workforce and health care change and crisis management and other highly regarded publications and presentations, Ms. Stamer is widely recognized for her decades of pragmatic, 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.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer’s work throughout her 30 plus year career has focused heavily on working with private and public employer, 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.  In the course of this work, she has had extensive involvement in the design, administration and defense of payroll, employee benefit, insurance, securities, trade secret and other confidential information and other internal and external record and data systems and processes as well as investigation, reporting, redress and mitigation of cyber and other incidents.

As a part of this work, she has continuously and extensively worked with domestic and international health and other employee benefit plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries, administrators, and insurers; managed care and insurance organizations; 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; EHR, 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.  She also has extensive experience dealing with 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.

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, current RPTE Welfare Benefit Committee Co-Chair and former Chair of its Fiduciary Responsibility, Plan Terminations and Distributions and Defined Contribution Plan Committees, a former JCEB Council Representative, Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, former SHRM Consultants Board and Region IV Chair, former Texas Association of Business Board, BACPAC Board and Dallas Chapter Chair, 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.

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.

About Solutions Law Press, Inc.™

Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ provides human resources and employee benefit and other business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other coaching, tools and other resources, training and education on leadership, governance, human resources, employee benefits, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ resources available here.

IMPORTANT NOTICE ABOUT THIS COMMUNICATION

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 your profile here.

NOTICE:   These statements and materials are for general informational and purposes only. They do not establish an attorney-client relationship, are not legal advice or an offer or commitment to provide legal advice, and do not serve as a substitute for legal advice. Readers are urged to engage competent legal counsel for consultation and representation considering the specific facts and circumstances presented in their unique circumstance at any time. No comment or statement in this publication is to be construed as legal advice or an admission. The author and Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ reserve the right to qualify or retract any of these statements at any time. Likewise, the content is not tailored to any situation and does not necessarily address all relevant issues. Because developments could impact the currency and completeness of this discussion, the author and Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ disclaim, and have no responsibility to provide any update or otherwise notify anyone any such change, limitation, or other condition that might affect the suitability of reliance upon these materials or information otherwise conveyed in connection with this program. Readers may not rely upon, are solely responsible for, and assume the risk and all liabilities resulting from their use of this publication.  Readers acknowledge and agree to the conditions of this Notice as a condition of their access of this publication.  Circular 230 Compliance. The following disclaimer is included to ensure that we comply with U.S. Treasury Department Regulations. Any statements contained herein are not intended or written by the writer to be used, and nothing contained herein can be used by you or any other person, for the purpose of (1) avoiding penalties that may be imposed under federal tax law, or (2) promoting, marketing or recommending to another party any tax-related transaction or matter addressed herein. ©2021 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Limited non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.™.


FTC Statement Warning To Confirm Health & Fitness Apps & Other Connected Devices Compliant With Applicable Federal Health Breach Notification Rules

October 1, 2021

Vendors and developers of mobile health apps and connected devices (“health apps”) that track or collect fitness or other health information that contain individually identifiable health information created or received by health care providers (“personal health records” or “PHR”) and their service providers (“collectively “PHR Vendors””) should verify their data security and breach notification policies and processes comply with applicable federal data breach rules in light of a September 15, 2021 Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) policy statement cautioning health app vendors and their service providers that that app providers are responsible for complying with the FTC Health Breach Notification Rule; Final Rule, 16 C.F.R. Part 318 (“Health Breach Rule”) unless the breach is covered by and addressed in accordance with the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (“HIPAA”) Breach Notification for Unsecured Protected Health Information, 45 CFR Parts 160 and 164 (“HIPAA Breach Rule”) applicable to health plans, health care providers, health care clearinghouses and their service provider business associates  (“HIPAA Entities”) experiencing breaches of protected health information (“PHI”).

The HIPAA Breach Notification Rule and the Health Breach Rule implement enhanced health information data security and breach notification requirements added to federal law by the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH) enacted by Congress as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009.  Widely recognized, the HIPAA Breach Rule adopted and enforced by the Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) implements breach notification and other requirements for the protection of electronic PHI applicable to HIPAA Covered Entity.  In contrast, the FTC Health Breach Rule implements the HITECH Act’s requirements for breaches not subject to the HIPAA Breach Rule of individually identifiable consumer health information in “personal health records” and falls under the FTC’s jurisdiction to investigate and enforce.

Awareness of the HIIPAA Breach Rule is much more widespread, largely due to OCR’s long and ever-growing list of settlements and prosecutions of violations of its HIPAA Breach Rules.  See e.g., Pennsylvania OCR Settlement Warns Others Against Disability Or Other Civil Rights Discrimination In COVID-19 Resource Allocation & Other Response; Gastroenterology Practices Pays $100K For HIPAA Noncompliance; OCR Warns HIPAA Entities To “Get Serious” About HIPAA Compliance In Announcing Latest Settlement Against Ambulance Company; $1.6M HIPAA Penalty Mostly Due To Inadequate Security Assessment & Oversight. However the FTC’s lack of enforcement or other meaningful action of the Health Breach Rules since its adoption has fostered both a lack of awareness and concern about compliance with its requirements regarding reporting of breaches of PHR.

FTC Health Breach Rule For PHR Breaches

The FTC Health Breach Rule applies to breaches of electronic PHR. For purposes of the Health Breach Rule, “personal health record” or “PHR” generally means an electronic record any information, collected from an individual, that:

  • Is not subject to the HIPAA Breach Notification rules applicable to HIPAA Entities when a breach of electronic PHI happens;
  • Is created or received by a health care provider, health plan, employer, or health care clearinghouse;
  • Relates to the past, present, or future physical or mental health or condition of an individual, the provision of health care to an individual, or the past, present, or future payment for the provision of health care to an individual; and
  • Either identifies the individual or with respect to which there is a reasonable basis to believe that the information can be used to identify the individual; and
  • Is managed, shared, and controlled by or primarily for the individual.

Where applicable, the Health Breach Notification Rule requires that the Health App vendors or related entities notify consumers, the FTC, and, in some cases, the media when that data in a Personal Health Record is disclosed or acquired without the consumers’ authorization. In addition, a third party service provider of such vendors or entities that experiences a breach must notify such vendors or entities of the breach, so that they can in turn notify their customers.   Beyond requiring notification of breaches of Personal Health Records, the Health Breach Rule also contains specific requirements governing the timing, method, and contents of the breach notice to consumers. In general, it requires entities to provide breach notices by first class mail, or if specified as a preference by the individual, via e-mail “without unreasonable delay,” and in no case later than 60 calendar days after discovering a breach.  Substitute notice, through the media or a web posting, also may be required when there is insufficient contact information for ten or more individuals.

Violations of the Health Breach Rule can be costly.  The HITECH Act authorizes the FTC to seek civil penalties for violations. Companies that fail to comply with the rule could be subject to monetary penalties of up to $43,792 per violation per day.

FTC Signals Health Rule Enforcement Impending

The FTC Commission’s adoption of a Statement of the Commission on Breaches by Health Apps and Other Connected Devices (the”Statement”) at its September 15, 2021 meeting signals the FTC is preparing to begin enforcing the Health Breach Rule after taking no enforcement action in the decade since its adoption. 

Responding to the explosive growth Health Apps and their use, the Statement notes that Health Apps such as wearable fitness tracking devices that collect consumers’ health information are covered by the Health Breach Notification Rule if they can draw data from multiple sources, and are not covered by the HIPAA Breach Rule.  The Statement warns PHR Vendors not covered by HIPAA are responsible for protecting PHRs from unauthorized access and face civil monetary penalties of up to $43,792 per violation per day for failing to provide breach notification in accordance with the Health Breach Notification Rule when their PHRs experience a “breach of security” of PHRs on a Health App.  

The Statement also urges PHR Vendors, health app developers, and others involved with the creation, provision or use of mobile devices collecting or accessing fitness or other individually identifiable health information to examine their obligation and recommends using the Developing a Mobile Health Act Tool (the “Tool”) to help determine what laws apply.  For example, the Statement states a Health App would be covered under the FTC’s Health Breach Rule if it collects health information from a consumer and has the technical capacity to draw information through an API that enables synching with a consumer’s fitness tracker, but cites to cross references to the HIPAA Breach Rule in the Health Breach Rule to explain that a Health App developer is a “health care provider” subject to the HIPAA Breach Rule because it “furnish[es] health care services or supplies.”  

Comments made by FTC Commissioner Lina M. Khan regarding the need for the Statement add weight to the credibility of concerns about impending enforcement. While noting the Health Breach Rule “imposes some measure of accountability on tech firms that abuse our personal information, Ms. Khan identified “the commodification of sensitive health information, where companies can use this data to feed behavioral ads or power user analytics” as an even “more fundamental problem.”  She also stated “Given the growing prevalence of surveillance-based advertising, the Commission should be scrutinizing what data is being collected in the first place and whether particular types of business models create incentives that necessarily place users at risk.”

ALL HEALTH APP VENDERS & PROVIDERS SHOULD VERIFY COMPLIANCE WITH APPLICABLE BREACH REQUIREMENTS

In the face of OCR’s ongoing enforcement of HIPAA and the Statement’s signal of the FTC’s new commitment to the Health Breach Rule enforcement PHR Vendors, HIPAA Covered Entitles, and others involved with the development, provision, use or management of mobile apps or other devices that collect or access individually identifiable health information should take documented steps to evaluate their responsibilities and risks and address potential compliance exposures promptly. As PHI Vendors also could face exposure from service providers, this review should include assessment of those compliance risks and exposures.  PHR Vendors also may wish to consider reviewing and strengthening contractual requirements for compliance, notification, audit and other vendor safeguarads. Given the potential of enforcement based on current or past practices or events and the likely need for candid discussion of issues and concerns associated with past and present noncompliance risks, HIPAA Covered Entities, PHR Vendors and others dealing with health apps or connected devices also should consider engaging legal counsel familiar with the various rules to help guide this evaluation within the scope of attorney-client privilege.

More Information

We hope this update is helpful. For more information about the these or other health or other legal, management or public policy 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 GroupHR & 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. As a significant part of her work, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively on pandemic, business and other crisis planning, preparedness and response for more than 30 years.

Scribe for the ABA JCEB Annual Agency Meeting with HHS-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 Group, Ms. Stamer is most widely recognized for her decades of pragmatic, 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.  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 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 health plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries, administrators, and insurers; managed care and insurance organizations; 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; EHR, 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.  

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, EHR, 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 “Privacy and the Pandemic Workshop” for the Association of State and Territorial Health Plans, as well as a multitude of other health industry matters, workforce and health care change and crisis management and other highly regarded publications and presentations, 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.  

About Solutions Law Press, Inc.™

Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ provides human resources and employee benefit and other business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other coaching, tools and other resources, training and education on leadership, governance, human resources, employee benefits, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ resources available here.  

IMPORTANT NOTICE ABOUT THIS COMMUNICATION

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 your profile here.

NOTICE:   These statements and materials are for general informational and purposes only. They do not establish an attorney-client relationship, are not legal advice or an offer or commitment to provide legal advice, and do not serve as a substitute for legal advice. Readers are urged to engage competent legal counsel for consultation and representation in light of the specific facts and circumstances presented in their unique circumstance at any particular time. No comment or statement in this publication is to be construed as legal advice or an admission. The author and Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ reserve the right to qualify or retract any of these statements at any time. Likewise, the content is not tailored to any particular situation and does not necessarily address all relevant issues. Because the law is rapidly evolving and rapidly evolving rules makes it highly likely that subsequent developments could impact the currency and completeness of this discussion. The author and Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ disclaim, and have no responsibility to provide any update or otherwise notify anyone any such change, limitation, or other condition that might affect the suitability of reliance upon these materials or information otherwise conveyed in connection with this program. Readers may not rely upon, are solely responsible for, and assume the risk and all liabilities resulting from their use of this publication.  Readers acknowledge and agree to the conditions of this Notice as a condition of their access of this publication.  Circular 230 Compliance. The following disclaimer is included to ensure that we comply with U.S. Treasury Department Regulations. Any statements contained herein are not intended or written by the writer to be used, and nothing contained herein can be used by you or any other person, for the purpose of (1) avoiding penalties that may be imposed under federal tax law, or (2) promoting, marketing or recommending to another party any tax-related transaction or matter addressed herein. ©2020 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Limited non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.™.