$2.4M+ St. Joseph Health HIPAA Settlement Teaching Lesson For Other HIPAA-Covered Entities & Business Associates

St. Joseph Health (SJH)  has agreed to pay  a $2.4 million plus settlement payment, conduct an enterprise-wide risk analysis and implement and administer a comprehensive correction plan under a Resolution Agreement and Corrective Action Plan (SJH Settlement) reached with the  Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR)  to settle OCR charges that SJH violated the Privacy & Security Rules of the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA) by allowing files containing electronic protected health information (ePHI) of 31,800 individuals that SJH created for its participation in the Medicare meaningful use program to be publicly accessible on the internet from February 1, 2011, until February 13, 2012.  The SJH Settlement announced here by OCR on October 18, 2016 demonstrates the mounting HIPAA enforcement exposures that HIPAA-covered health care providers, health plans, healthcare clearinghouses and their business associates (Covered Entities) risk when a breach of ePHI or other prohibited use, access, destruction or disclosure of ePHI or other personal health information (PHI) results from the failure of the Covered Entity or its business associates to properly protect or secure it in accordance with HIPAA.  A review of the SJH Settlement drives home the point that Covered Entities should not assume that meaningful use or other electronic recordkeeping systems containing ePHI are properly secured in accordance with HIPAA.

SJH Investigation & Charges Resulting In $2.4 Million+ Settlement

A nonprofit integrated Catholic health care delivery system sponsored by the St. Joseph Health Ministry, who through its 24,000 employees and 6,000 physicians provides a range of health care services to more than 137,000 inpatients and 3.6 million outpatients each year at SHS’ 4 acute care hospitals, home health agencies, hospice care, outpatient services, skilled nursing facilities, community clinics and physician organizations located throughout California and in parts of Texas and New Mexico.

OCR’s charges against SJH arose out of OCR’s investigation into a 2012 breach notification report SJS filed with OCR.  On February 14, 2012, SJH reported to OCR that files containing electronic protected health information (ePHI) of 31,800 individuals from five of the SJH hospitals-St. Jude Medical Center, Mission Hospital, Queen of the Valley Medical Center, Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, and Petaluma Valley Hospital that SJH created for its participation in the meaningful use program were publicly accessible on the internet from February 1, 2011, until February 13, 2012, via Google and possibly other internet search engines.

SJH’s report to OCR indicated that this public access resulted from a configuration within its network server in which PDF files containing following patient information were uploaded: patient names; BMI; blood pressure; lab results; smoking status; diagnoses lists; medication allergies; advance directive status and demographic information (language, ethnicity, race, sex, and birth date). The server SJH purchased to store the files included a file sharing application whose default settings allowed anyone with an internet connection to access them. Upon implementation of this server and the file sharing application, SJH did not examine or modify it. As a result, the public had unrestricted access to PDF files containing the ePHI of 31,800 individuals, including patient names, health statuses, diagnoses, and demographic information  from February 14, 2012 until SJH blocked external access to the ePHI when it shut down the application February 13, 2012.

OCR’s investigation indicated the following potential violations of the HIPAA Rules:

  • From February 1, 2011 to February 13, 2012, SJH potentially disclosed the PHI of 31,800 individuals;
  • Evidence indicated that SJH failed to conduct an evaluation in response to the environmental and operational changes presented by implementation of a new server for its meaningful use project, thereby compromising the security of ePHI;
  • Although SJH hired a number of contractors to assess the risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity and availability of ePHI held by SJH, evidence indicated that this was conducted in a patchwork fashion and did not result in an enterprise-wide risk analysis, as required by the HIPAA Security Rule.

SJH Settlement Agreement Highlights

Under the settlement agreement with SJH that OCR announced on October 18, 2016, SJH must pay a $2,140,500 settlement payment and adopt a comprehensive corrective action plan which among other things, requires SJH to conduct an enterprise-wide risk analysis, develop and implement a risk management plan, revise its policies and procedures, and train its staff on these policies and procedures.  SJH’s Chief Executive Officer, Annette M. Walker, is named in the Corrective Action Plan as the SJH authorized representative and contact person responsible for overseeing the CAP implementation.

Among other things, the Corrective Action Plan specifically requires that SJH:

  • Within 240 days, conduct an enterprise-wide analysis and provide a report to OCR which includes a complete inventory of all electronic equipment, data systems, and applications that contain or store ePHI, and prepare and deliver to OCR for review an enterprise-wide risk analysis that identifies all security risks and vulnerabilities that incorporates all electronic equipment, data systems, and applications controlled, administered, or owned by SJH, its workforce members, and affiliated staff that contains, stores, transmits, or receives electronic protected health information (ePHJ);
  • Revise this risk analysis plan as directed by OCR based on its review of the presented risk analysis;
  • Develop and implement to the satisfaction of OCR an organization-wide risk management plan to address and mitigate any security risks and vulnerabilities identified in the risk analysis;
  • Distribute the risk management plan as finally approved by OCR to to workforce members involved with implementation of the plan within 30 days of OCR approval;
  • Revise to OCR’s satisfaction, adopt and implement within 30 days of OCR’s approval compliant HIPAA policies and procedures;
  • Prepare for review of OCR training materials and once approved by OCR, provide initial training to required workforce members, and obtain certification of completion of that training from each required workforce member within 60 days of OCR’s approval of the training and thereafter at least annually as long as the Corrective Action Plan remains in force;
  • Promptly conduct a documented investigation of any information indicating a potential workforce member violation of the new HIPAA policies in the manner required by OCR and if the investigation confirms a violation (Reportable Event), notify OCR of the relevant facts, findings, corrective actions and sanctions imposed against the violating workforce member in the manner required by the Corrective Action Plan;
  • Submit annual report to OCR signed and attested to by an SJH officer, which contains the information and attestations of compliance with the requirements of the Corrective Action Plan in accordance with the Corrective Action Plan;
  • Retain for inspection and copying and provide to OCR upon request all documents and records relating to compliance with this Corrective Action Plan for six (6) years from the Effective Date of the SJH Settlement Agreement.

Take Away For Other Covered Entities & Business Associates

To help safeguard their own organizations against potential sanctions from OCR and other HIPAA enforcement risks, Covered Entities and their business associates should ensure that their organization possesses a well-documented current enterprise-wide risk assessment, as well as has in place and is administering as necessary to maintain the currency and adequacy of its risk assessment strong practices for conducting documented evaluations of their own HIPAA security, policies, practices, audits and investigations and other procedures necessary to comply with HIPAA, taking into account recent OCR guidance,  its initiation of its Phase II audit program, the insights offered by the SJH and other OCR’s ever growing list of enforcement actions and compliance tools, as well as changes in systems, documentation, software, equipment or other occurrences within the operations of the Covered Entity or business associate’s operations that could impact the currency and adequacy of its risk assessment or otherwise raise compliance risks..

 In this respect, Covered Entities and business associates are encouraged to take special note of the advisability of specifically reviewing and updating their HIPAA policies, practices, business associate agreements, training, oversight and documentation to in response to OCR’s;

As breaches of PHI and other violations of HIPAA also frequently give rise to responsibilities or risks under a broad range of other federal and state laws medical and financial privacy and data security, Medicare and other terms of federal program participation, medical credentialing, licensure and ethics, insurance and Employee Retirement Income Security Act fiduciary responsibilities in the case of health plans, contractual,  tort and other exposures, Covered Entities and their business associates also generally are best served to take into account these other responsibilities and exposures in conjunction with the design and administration of their HIPAA compliance and risk management policies and practices.

Covered Entities and their business associates also should seek advice from legal counsel regarding the adequacy of their compliance, investigatory, training, management oversight, training, reporting, documentation, document retention and other processes and procedures that could reduce risks of HIPAA violations and position the organization to effectively and more efficiently respond to a potential breach, audit, investigation or enforcement action and mitigate the costs and potential liability exposures that increasingly attends these events.  In addition, given the typically high financial, operational and legal costs typically incurred to conduct investigations, report and redress breaches, and respond to OCR audits or investigations, much less make any payments and implement any corrective actions required to settle OCR changes, most Covered Entities and their business associations will want to consider the advisability and adequacy of insurance and other sources of funding or indemnification for the often substantial costs that often attend a HIPAA breach, audit or enforcement event. Since HIPAA violations under certain circumstances also can give rise to felony criminal liability, boards of directors and other leaders of Covered Entities and business associates also will want to ensure that their HIPAA compliance policies and practices also are incorporated and monitored by management as part of their organization’s overall Federal Sentencing Guideline Compliance programs and practices.

About The Author

Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely recognized for her extensive work and pragmatic thought leadership, experience, publications and training on HIPAA and other privacy, medical records and data and other health care and health plan concerns.

Recognized as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in both Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law, a “Texas Top Lawyer,” an “AV-Preeminent” and “Top Rated Lawyer” by Martindale-Hubble and as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” in employee benefits by D Magazine; Ms. Stamer has more than 28 years of extensive proven, pragmatic knowledge and experience representing and advising health industry clients and others on operational, regulatory and other compliance, risk management, product and process development, public policy and other key concerns.

As a core component of her work as the Managing Shareholder of Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, PC, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively throughout her career with health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses, their business associates, employers, banks and other financial institutions, their technology and other vendors and service providers, and others on legal and operational risk management and compliance with HIPAA, FACTA, PCI, trade secret, physician and other medical confidentiality and privacy, federal and state data security and data breach and other information privacy and data security rules and concerns; prevention, investigation, response, mitigation and resolution of known or suspected data or privacy breaches or other incidents; defending investigations or other actions by plaintiffs, OCR, FTC, state attorneys’ general and other federal or state agencies; reporting and redressing known or suspected breaches or other violations; business associate and other contracting; insurance or other liability management and allocation; process and product development, contracting, deployment and defense; evaluation, commenting or seeking modification of regulatory guidance, and other regulatory and public policy advocacy; training and discipline; enforcement, and a host of other related concerns for public and private health care providers, health insurers, health plans, technology and other vendors, employers, and others.

Beyond her extensive involvement advising and representing clients on privacy and data security concerns and other health industry matters, Ms. Stamer also has served for several years as a scrivener for the ABA JCEB’s meeting with OCR, the Chair of the Southern California ISSA Health Care Privacy & Security Summit, and an editorial advisory board member, author, program chair or steering committee member, and faculties for a multitude of other programs and publications regarding privacy, data security, technology and other compliance, risk management and operational concerns in the health care, health and other insurance, employee benefits and human resources, retail, financial services and other arenas.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares shared her thought leadership, experience and advocacy on HIPAA and other concerns by her service in the leadership of a broad range of other professional and civic organization including her involvement as the Vice Chair of the North Texas Healthcare Compliance Association, Executive Director of the Coalition on Responsible Health Policy and its PROJECT COPE: Coalition on Patient Empowerment, 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; former Board Compliance Chair and Board member of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, 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, immediate past RPTE Representative to ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative and current RPTE Representative to the ABA Health Law Coordinating Council, 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.

Ms. Stamer also is a highly popular lecturer, symposia chair and author, who publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry, human resources, employment and other privacy, data security and other technology, regulatory and operational risk management. Examples of her many highly regarded publications on these matters include “Protecting & Using Patient Data In Disease Management: Opportunities, Liabilities And Prescriptions,” “Privacy Invasions of Medical Care-An Emerging Perspective,” “Cybercrime and Identity Theft: Health Information Security: Beyond HIPAA,” as well as thousands of other publications, programs and workshops these and other concerns for the American Bar Association, ALI-ABA, American Health Lawyers, Society of Human Resources Professionals, the Southwest Benefits Association, the Society of Employee Benefits Administrators, the American Law Institute, Lexis-Nexis, Atlantic Information Services, The Bureau of National Affairs (BNA), InsuranceThoughtLeaders.com, Benefits Magazine, Employee Benefit News, Texas CEO Magazine, HealthLeaders, the HCCA, ISSA, HIMSS, Modern Healthcare, Managed Healthcare, Institute of Internal Auditors, Society of CPAs, Business Insurance, Employee Benefits News, World At Work, Benefits Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Morning News, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other symposia and publications. She also has served as an Editorial Advisory Board Member for human resources, employee benefit and other management focused publications of BNA, HR.com, Employee Benefit News, InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com and many other prominent publications and speaks and conducts training for a broad range of professional organizations and for clientson the Advisory Boards of InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com, HR.com, Employee Benefit News, and many other publications. For additional information about Ms. Stamer, see CynthiaStamer.com  or contact Ms. Stamer via email here or via telephone to (469) 767-8872.

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 at http://www.solutionslawpress.com such as:

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