Hospital Pay $275K To Settle HIPAA Charges After Sharing PHI With Press, Workforce In Response To Fraud Reports

Health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses and their business associates should confirm their existing policies, practices and training for communicating with the media and others comply with the Privacy Rule requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule in light of a Resolution Agreement with Shasta Regional Medical Center (SRMC) announced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights today (June 14, 2013).

Under the Resolution Agreement, SRMC agrees to pay $275,000 and implement a comprehensive corrective action plan (CAP) to settle an investigation that resulted when SRMC used and disclosed protected health information (PHI) of a patient to members of the media and its workforce while trying to do damage control against fraud or other allegations of misconduct involving individual patient information or circumstances.  The Resolution Agreement shows how efforts to respond to press or media reports, patient or other complaints, physician or employee disputes, high profile accidents, or other events that may involve communications not typically run by privacy officers can create big exposures.

Talking Out Of Turn To Media & Others Violated HIPAA

OCR investigated SRMC after a January 4, 2012 Los Angeles Times article reported two SRMC senior leaders had met with media to discuss medical services provided to a patient.  OCR’s investigation indicated that SRMC failed to safeguard the patient’s protected health information (PHI) from impermissible disclosure by intentionally disclosing PHI to multiple media outlets on at least three separate occasions, without a valid written authorization. OCR’s review also revealed senior management at SRMC impermissibly shared details about the patient’s medical condition, diagnosis and treatment in an email to the entire workforce.  Further, SRMC failed to sanction its workforce members for impermissibly disclosing the patient’s records pursuant to its internal sanctions policy.

Among other things, the specific misconduct uncovered by HHS’s investigation indicated that from December 13 – 20, 2011, SRMC failed to safeguard the patient’s PHI from any impermissible intentional or unintentional disclosure on multiple occasions in connection with its response to media coverage arising from a Medicare fraud story including:

  • On December 13, 2011, for instance, OCR reports SRMC’s parent company sent a letter to California Watch, responding to a story about Medicare fraud. The letter described  the patient’s medical treatment and provided specifics about her lab results even though SRMC did not have a written authorization from  the patient to disclose this information to this news outlet.
  • On December 16, 2011, two of SRMC’s senior leaders also met with The Record Searchlight’s editor to discuss the patient’s medical record in detail even though SRMC did not have a written authorization from  the patient to disclose this information to this newspaper.
  • On December 20, 2011, SRMC sent a letter to The Los Angeles Times, which contained detailed information about the treatment  the patient received when, again, SRMC did not have a written authorization from  the patient to disclose this information to this newspaper.

In addition, OCR found SRMC impermissibly used the affected party’s PHI  when on December 20, 2011, SRMC sent an email to its entire workforce and medical staff, approximately 785-900 individuals, describing, in detail,  the patient’s medical condition, diagnosis and treatment. SRMC did not have a written authorization from  the patient to share this information with SRMC’s entire workforce and medical staff.

SRMC Must Correct & Pay $$275K Penalty

Under the Resolution Agreement, SRMC pays a $275,000 monetary settlement and agrees to comply with a CAP for the next year.

The CAP requires SRMC to update its policies and procedures on safeguarding PHI from impermissible uses and disclosures and to train its workforce members.  The CAP also requires fifteen other hospitals or medical centers under the same ownership or operational control as SRMC to attest to their understanding of permissible uses and disclosures of PHI, including disclosures to the media.

The Resolution Agreement specifically requires that Shasta Regional Medical Center, among other things:

  • To update policies to include specific policies about sharing PHI with the media, members of the workforce not involved in an individual patient’s care and others to comply with HIPAA;.
  • To provide updated policies to OCR for approval;
  • To provide training documented with certification of all workforce members before allowing them to access PHI;

SRMC is one of several Prime Healthcare Services facilities under common ownership and control.  The Resolution Agreement also requires corrective action at these commonly owned facilities including California-based Alvarado Hospital Medical Center in San Diego, Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood, Chino Valley Medical Center in Chino, Desert Valley Hospital in Victorville, Garden Grove Hospital Medical Center in Garden Grove,  La Palma Intercommunity Hospital in La Palma, Paradise Valley Hospital in National City, San Dimas Community Hospital in San Dimas, Shasta Regional Medical Center in Redding, and West Anaheim Medical Center in Anaheim; Saint Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Reno, Nevada; Pennsylvania based Lower Bucks Hospital in Bristol and Roxborough Memorial Hospital in Philadelphia;and Texas-based Dallas Medical Center in Dallas, Harlingen Medical Center in Harlingen, Pampa Regional Medical Center in Pampa.  Among other things, the Resolution Agreement requires that for each of these related facilities:

  • The CEO and Privacy Officer of each facility must give OCR a signed affidavit stating that they understand that the Privacy Rule protects an individual’s PHI is protected by Privacy Rule even if such information is already in the public domain or even though it has been disclosed by the individual; and that disclosures of PHI in response to media inquiries are only permissible pursuant to a signed HIPAA authorization; and
  • Ensure all members of their respective workforce are informed of this policy.

The Resolution Agreement highlights the difficulty that health care providers and other covered entities often face in properly recognizing and handling PHI in the case of fraud or other disputes.  While health care providers have an understandable desire to defend themselves in the media and elsewhere in response to charges of misconduct, today’s settlement shows that improperly sharing PHI of each patient in the process will make matters much worse. It’s important to keep in mind that just omitting to mention the name or other common identifying information may not overcome this concern because information about a patient can be considered individually identifiable and to enjoy protection under HIPAA where the facts and circumstances would allow another person to know or determine who the individual is, even if the specific name, address or more common identifying information is not shared.

Furthermore, the settlement also makes clear that merely because the patient or some other party has shared the same information with the media or others does not excuse the health care provider or other covered entity or business associate from the obligation to keep confidential the PHI unless it gets proper consent or otherwise can show that an exception to HIPAA applies.

While this  means that health care providers or other covered entities and business associates may find themselves in the uncomfortable situation of facing unsavory reports and rumors without the ability to respond, the significant civil and even criminal penalties that can arise from violation of HIPAA make it critical that covered entities exercise discipline in responding to avoid sharing PHI improperly.

Enforcement Actions Highlight Growing HIPAA Exposures For Covered Entities

The SRMC Resolution Agreement again shows the growing risk of enforcement that health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses and their business associates face as OCR continues its audits and enforcement, new Omnibus HIPAA Regulations implementing the HITECH Act amendments to HIPAA and state and federal liability grows..  See e.g., $1.5 Million HIPAA Settlement Reached To Resolve 1st OCR Enforcement Action Prompted By HITECH Act Breach Report; HIPAA Heats Up: HITECH Act Changes Take Effect & OCR Begins Posting Names, Other Details Of Unsecured PHI Breach Reports On Website

In response to these expanding exposures, all covered entities and their business associates should review critically and carefully the adequacy of their current HIPAA Privacy and Security compliance policies, monitoring, training, breach notification and other practices taking into consideration OCR’s investigation and enforcement actions, emerging litigation and other enforcement data; their own and reports of other security and privacy breaches and near misses, and other developments to determine if additional steps are necessary or advisable.

As part of this process, covered entities should ensure they look outside the four corners of their Privacy Policies to ensure that appropriate training and clarification is provided to address media, practice transition, workforce communication and other policies and practices that may be covered by pre-existing or other policies of other departments or operational elements not typically under the direct oversight and management of the Privacy Officer such as media relations.  Media relations, physician and patients affairs, outside legal counsel, media relations, marketing and other internal and external departments and consultants dealing with the media, the public or other inquiries or disputes should carefully include and coordinate with the privacy officer both to ensure appropriate policies and procedures are followed and proper documentation created and retained to show authorization, account, or meet other requirements.

For more information about the PCS Resolution Agreement and HIPAA compliance and risk management tips, see here.

For Representation, Training & Other Resources

If you need assistance monitoring HIPAA and other health and health plan related regulatory policy or enforcement developments, or to review or respond to these or other health care or health IT related risk management, compliance, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer may be able to help.

Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer has more than 24 years experience advising health industry clients about these and other matters. Ms. Stamer has extensive experience advising and assisting health care providers, health plans, their business associates and other health industry clients to establish and administer medical privacy and other compliance and risk management policies, to health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns. She regularly designs and presents HIPAA and other risk management, compliance and other training for health plans, employers, health care providers, professional associations and others.

Scheduled to serve as the scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits agency meeting with OCR, Ms. Stamer also regularly works with OCR and other agencies, publishes and speaks extensively on medical and other privacy and data security, health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns.  Her publications and insights appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications.   For instance, Ms. Stamer for the second year will serve as the appointed scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Agency meeting with OCR.  Her insights on HIPAA risk management and compliance often appear in medical privacy related publications of a broad range of health care, health plan and other industry publications Among others, she has conducted privacy training for the Association of State & Territorial Health Plans (ASTHO), the Los Angeles Health Department, the American Bar Association, the Health Care Compliance Association, a multitude of health industry, health plan, insurance and financial services, education, employer employee benefit and other clients, trade and professional associations and others.

You can get more information about her HIPAA and other experience here.

If you need assistance with these or other compliance concerns, wish to ask about arranging for compliance audit or training, or need legal representation on other matters please contact Ms. Stamer at (469) 767-8872 or via e-mail here.

You can review other recent publications and resources and additional information about the other experience of Ms. Stamer hereExamples of some recent publications that may be of interest include:

If you need help investigating or responding to a known or suspected compliance, litigation or enforcement or other risk management concern, assistance with reviewing, updating, administering or defending a current or proposed employment, employee benefit, compensation or other management practice, wish to inquire about federal or state regulatory compliance audits, risk management or training, or need legal representation on other matters please contact Ms Stamer here or at (469) 767-8872.

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 or updating your profile here. For important information on this communication click here.    If you do not wish to receive these updates in the future, send an e-mail with the word “Remove” in the Subject to here.

©2013 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C. All rights reserved.

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