New $2.15M OCR Penalty Shows Health Plans Risks Of HIPAA Violations

October 23, 2019

Health plans and insurers and their service providers should heed as a warning of the potential perils they could face for violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Security and Breach Notification Rules the just-announced $2.15 million plus civil monetary penalty that Jackson Health System (JHS) paid the Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights (OCR).

While the HIPAA-covered entity that paid the $2,154,000 civil monetary penalty, JHS,  is a Florida-based nonprofit academic medical system, rather than a health plan, the $1,500,000 HIPAA resolution payment OCR previously collected from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee (BCBST) in 2012 for its breaches of HIPAA make clear that health plans and insurers risk similar penalties for HIPAA violations.  Consequently, health plans, health insurers and other health care providers and their business associates should construe the JHS civil monetary penalty as evidence of the need to re-verify and remain constantly vigilant about maintaining compliance with HIPAA’s privacy, security and breach notification rules currently and on an ongoing basis.

JHS HIPAA Breaches Found By OCR

The $2.1 million plus payment was required to satisfy a civil monetary penalty assessment OCR imposed in a Notice of Proposed Determination and Notice of Final Determination made public by OCR on October 23, 2019 in response to findings from a series of investigations of HIPAA breach and compliance concerns raised between 2013 and 2016 raised by various HIPAA-mandated breach reports and media reports that raised concerns about improper access disclosure and use of patient PHI between 2013 and 2016.  When JHS did not challenge the findings or determination became final.  OCR reports JHS has paid the specified $2.154,000  civil monetary penalty.

JHS operates six major hospitals, a network of urgent care centers, multiple primary care and specialty care centers, long-term care nursing facilities, and corrections health services clinics, provides health services to approximately 650,000 patients annually, and employs about 12,000 individuals.

On August 22, 2013, JHS submitted a breach report to OCR stating that its Health Information Management Department lost paper records containing the protected health information (PHI) of 756 patients in January 2013. JHS’s internal investigation determined that an additional three boxes of patient records also were lost in December 2012; however, JHS did not report the additional loss or the increased number of individuals affected to 1,436, until June 7, 2016.

In July 2015, OCR initiated an investigation following a media report that disclosed the PHI of a JHS patient. A reporter had shared a photograph of a JHS operating room screen containing the patient’s medical information on social media. JHS subsequently determined that two employees had accessed this patient’s electronic medical record without a job-related purpose.

On February 19, 2016, JHS submitted a breach report to OCR reporting that an employee had been selling patient PHI. The employee had accessed inappropriately over 24,000 patients’ records since 2011.

According to OCR Director Roger Severino, “OCR’s investigation revealed a HIPAA compliance program that had been in disarray for a number of years. …This hospital system’s compliance program failed to detect and stop an employee who stole and sold thousands of patient records; lost patient files without notifying OCR as required by law; and failed to properly secure PHI that was leaked to the media.”

These and other findings led to the OCR determination in the Notice of Proposed Determination and Notice of Final Determination that JHS failed to provide timely and accurate breach notification to the Secretary of HHS, conduct enterprise-wide risk analyses, manage identified risks to a reasonable and appropriate level, regularly review information system activity records, and restrict authorization of its workforce members’ access to patient ePHI to the minimum necessary to accomplish their job duties.  OCR assessed the $2.1 million civil monetary penalty based on these determinations.

The JHS civil monetary penalty is The latest in a growing series of OCR enforcement and regulatory actions that drive home the perils HIPAA-covered health care providers, health plans and insurers, healthcare clearinghouses and  business associates risk by failing to responsibly and effectively manage their HIPAA compliance including the one against mega-health plan and business associate, BCBST, that resulted in its payment of a $1,500,000 resolution payment.  For details of the BCBS Resolution Agreement and Settlement payment, see here.

OCR enforcement data documents a steady  rise in OCR investigation and enforcement activity.  OCR set all-time records for HIPAA Enforcement in 2018.  Heavy enforcement activity has continued in 2019.   Before its October 23, 2019 announcement of the JHS civil monetary penalties, OCR already had announced:

Given these and other previously announced enforcement initiatives and actions, all HIPAA covered entities and their business associates are urged to maintain hypervigilance about their own HIPAA compliance with long standing as well as emerging HIPAA requirements taking into account old, recent, and emerging guidance and enforcement activities of OCR.  Of course health plans and other covered entities also need to additionally weigh their exposure under various other state and federal law likely to arise from such breaches and the investigation, mitigation and public and customer trust consequences that almost always accompany and frequently exceed the actual HIPAA liability imposed. Considered together, these and other consequences of HIPAA vioations or other sloppy dealings with protected health inforamtion or ther sensitive health care or financial information make a clear case for investing appropriately in HIPAA and related compliance.

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 management focused employment, employee benefit and insurance, workforce and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications.

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’s clients include employers and other workforce management organizations; employer, union, association, government and other insured and self-insured health and other employee benefit plan sponsors, benefit plans, fiduciaries, administrators, and other plan vendors;   domestic and international public and private health care, education and other community service and care organizations; managed care organizations; insurers, third-party administrative services organizations and other payer organizations;  and other private and government organizations and their management leaders.  As part of this work, she has worked extensively on employee benefit communication and other employee benefit plan legislative and regulatory policy, design, compliance and enforcement including testifying to the EBSA Advisory Council on Employee Welfare and Pension Benefit Plans in  on the effectiveness of employee benefit plan disclosures during 2017 hearings on on reducing the burdens and increasing the effectiveness of ERISA mandated disclosures.

Throughout her 30 plus year career, Ms. Stamer has continuously worked with these and other management clients to design, implement, document, administer and defend hiring, performance management, compensation, promotion, demotion, discipline, reduction in force and other workforce, employee benefit, insurance and risk management, health and safety, and other programs, products and solutions, and practices; establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; manage labor-management relations, comply with requirements, investigate and respond to government, accreditation and quality organizations, regulatory and contractual audits, private litigation and other federal and state reviews, investigations and enforcement actions; evaluate and influence legislative and regulatory reforms and other regulatory and public policy advocacy; prepare and present training and discipline;  handle workforce and related change management associated with mergers, acquisitions, reductions in force, re-engineering, and other change management; and a host of other workforce related concerns. Ms. Stamer’s experience in these matters includes supporting these organizations and their leaders on both a real-time, “on demand” basis with crisis preparedness, intervention and response as well as consulting and representing clients on ongoing compliance and risk management; plan and program design; vendor and employee credentialing, selection, contracting, performance management and other dealings; strategic planning; policy, program, product and services development and innovation; mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcy and other crisis and change management; management, and other opportunities and challenges arising in the course of workforce and other operations management to improve performance while managing workforce, compensation and benefits and other legal and operational liability and performance.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel and Past Chair of both the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and it’s RPTE Employee Benefits and Other  Compensation Group, Ms. Stamer also has leading edge experience in health benefit, health care, health, financial and other plan, program and process design, administration, documentation, contracting, risk management, compliance and related process and systems development, policy and operations; training; legislative and regulatory affairs, and other legal and operational concerns.

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, Ms. Stamer has been extensively involved in U.S. federal, state and local health care and other legislative and regulatory reform impacting these concerns throughout her career. Her public policy and regulatory affairs experience encompasses advising and representing domestic and multinational private sector health, insurance, employee benefit, employer, staffing and other outsourced service providers, and other clients in dealings with Congress, state legislatures, and federal, state and local regulators and government entities, as well as providing advice and input to U.S. and foreign government leaders on these and other policy concerns.

Author of leading works on a multitude of labor and employment, compensation and benefits, internal controls and compliance, and risk management matters 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 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.

For more information about Ms. Stamer or her health industry and other experience and involvements, see here or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

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