Latest OCR Resolution Agreement Hits Public Health Department, Shows Needs To Stay Up-To-Date

Health Department HIPAA Violations Cost County $250,000, Requires Sweeping HIPAA Reforms

Hear Update On Resolution Agreement & Other New HIPAA Developments At 3/18 North Texas Healthcare Professionals Association Meeting – 

RSVP here by Noon on March 17, 2014

Skagit County, Washington will pay a $215,000 monetary settlement and work closely with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) to correct deficiencies in its HIPAA compliance program to settle potential violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Privacy, Security, and Breach Notification Rules by the Skagit County Public Health Department (Health Department) under a Resolution Agreement announced by OCR on March 7, 2014.  The Resolution Agreement makes clear the need for health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses and their business associates to update and maintain their policies and practices in compliance with the constantly evolving OCR guidance and resolution agreements, as well as to timely investigate and report breaches.   Interested persons are invited to hear a briefing on a series of new developments including this latest Resolution Agreement at the March 18, 2014 North Texas Healthcare Professionals Association Meeting.

OCR investigated the Health Department after receiving a breach report that unknown parties accessed money receipts with electronic protected health information (ePHI) of seven individuals after the ePHI had been inadvertently moved to a publicly accessible server maintained by the County.

OCR reports its investigation revealed a broader exposure of protected health information involved in the incident, which included the ePHI of 1,581 individuals. Many of the accessible files involved sensitive information, including protected health information about the testing and treatment of infectious diseases.

OCR’s investigation further uncovered general and widespread non-compliance by Skagit County with the HIPAA Privacy, Security, and Breach Notification Rules.

Specifically, the Resolution Agreement between OCR and the Health Department states that OCR found the following conduct occurred (“Covered Conduct”).

  • From approximately September 14, 2011 until September 28, 2011, Skagit County disclosed the ePHI of 1,581 individuals in violation of the Privacy Rule by providing access to ePHI on its public web server;
  • From      November 28, 2011 until present, Skagit County failed to provide notification as required by the Breach Notification Rule to all of the individuals for whom it knew or should have known that the privacy or security of the individual’s ePHI had been compromised as a result of the breach incident;
  • From April 20, 2005 until present, Skagit County failed to implement sufficient policies and procedures to prevent, detect, contain, and correct security violations;
  • From April 20, 2005 until June 1, 2012, Skagit County failed to implement and  maintain in written or electronic form policies and procedures reasonably designed to ensure compliance with the Security Rule; and
  • From April 20, 2005 until present, Skagit County failed to provide security awareness  and training to all workforce members, including its Information Security staff members, as necessary and appropriate for the workforce members to carry out their functions within Skagit County.

To resolve OCR’s allegations of these breaches, Skagit County agrees under the Resolution Agreement to pay HHS $215,000.00 and to ensure that the Health Department implements a series of corrective actions.  Among other things, the Resolution Agreement requires that the Health Department:

  • Provide substitute Breach Notification to individuals not previously notified of the breach of their ePHI in accordance with the Resolution Agreement
  • Revise to the satisfaction of OCR and adopt revised accounting for disclosure, hybrid entity designations, policies on safeguarding PHI, including its sample business associate agreements;
  • Conduct an accurate and thorough assessment of the potential risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of electronic protected health information (ePHI) held by the covered health care components of Skagit County as identified in its hybrid entity documentation approved by HHS and implement security measures sufficient to reduce the risks and vulnerabilities identified in the risk analysis to a reasonable and appropriate level.
  • Create and revise, as necessary, written policies and procedures for its covered health care components to comply with the Federal standards that govern the privacy, security, and breach notification of individually identifiable health information;
  • Comply with strict workforce training requirements;
  • Notify and OCR of the occurrence of some reported breaches, its investigation and corrective actions;
  • Provide a summary of the reported events and the status of any corrective and preventative action relating to all such Reportable Events; and
  • Provide OCR with an attestation signed by an officer of Skagit County attesting that he or she has reviewed the Annual Report, has made a reasonable inquiry regarding its content and believes that, upon such inquiry, the information is accurate and truthful.

In addition to bringing its policies and practices up to date with OCR regulations in effect at the time of the breach that resulted in the Resolution Agreement, the Health Department also will have to update its polic9ies and practices to meet changes to OCR’s HIPAA rules that have taken effect since the breach under the revised rules published by OCR in its Modifications to the HIPAA Privacy, Security, Enforcement, and Breach Notification Rules Under the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act; Other Modifications to the HIPAA Rules; Final Rule (Omnibus Final Rule) OCR published January 25, 2013 as well as a series of recently issued OCR rules such as the following:

With OCR stepping up both audits and enforcement and penalties for violations higher than ever since the HITECH Act amended HIPAA, Covered Entities and business associates should act quickly to review and update their policies, practices and training to implement any adjustments needed to maintain compliance and manage other risks under these ever-evolving HIPAA standards.

Covered Entities & Business Associates Should Review & Tighten Practices in Response To Resolution Agreement & Other New Guidance

Other covered entities and their business associates should carefully evaluate and tighten their existing practices in response to the Resolution Agreement and other recent guidance.  In the past, OCR officials have stated it expects that other health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses and their business associates will review resolution agreements like this one along with other emerging OCR guidance and update their practices as necessary to address concerns within their own organization that might be similar to those reflected in the applicable resolution agreement.  The Resolution Agreement documents this expectation by specifically incorporating this requirement as part of its terms.

When conducting these efforts, Covered Entities and business associates not only carefully watch for and react promptly to new OCR guidance and enforcement actions, but also document their commitment and ongoing compliance and risk management activities to help support their ability to show their organization maintains the necessary “culture of compliance” commitment needed to mitigate risks in the event of a breach or other HIPAA violation and take well-documented, reasonable steps to encourage their business associates to do the same.    When carrying out these activities, most covered entities and business associates also will want to take steps to monitor potential responsibilities and exposures under other federal and state laws like the privacy and data security requirements that often apply to personal financial information, trade secrets or other sensitive data under applicable federal and state laws and judicial precedent.

Hear Stamer’s Update On Resolution Agreement & Other New HIPAA Developments At 3/18 North Texas Healthcare Professionals Association Meeting

Scribe for the American Bar Association Annual Agency Meeting with OCR for the fourth year, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer will overview these and other HIPAA developments when she presents “Tutoring On OCR’s Latest HIPAA Homework” at the North Texas Healthcare Professionals Association Study Group Luncheon on Tuesday,  March 18, 2014 from 11:30 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. at the offices of the Dallas Ft Worth Hospital Council, 250 Decker Drive, Irving, TX 75062-2706.  A complimentary luncheon will be served to guests to who register in advance.  There is no charge to particulate but space is limited.  RSVP here by Noon on March 17, 2014.

For More Information Or Assistance

If you need assistance reviewing or responding to these or other health care 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. Her experience includes advising hospitals, nursing home, home health, rehabilitation and other health care providers and health industry clients to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; prevent, conduct and investigate, and respond to peer review and other quality concerns; and to respond to Board of Medicine, Department of Aging & Disability, Drug Enforcement Agency, OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, HHS, DOD and other health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns.

A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on 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 presentations and programs include a wide range of other workshops, programs and publications on fraud and other compliance, operational and risk management, and other health industry matters.

Her insights on these and other related matters appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, 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.  You can get more information about her health industry experience here. If you need assistance responding to concerns about the matters discussed in this publication or other health care concerns, wish to obtain information about arranging for training or presentations by Ms. Stamer, wish to suggest a topic for a future program or update, or wish to request other information or materials, please contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns from Ms. Stamer, see  here.

About Solutions Law Press

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

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©2014 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C.  Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.

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