Bankrupt Oncology Provider’s $2.3M Settlement Payment & Other HIPAA Breach Consequences Shows Why To Prioritize HIPAA Compliance In 2018

The just-announced agreement $2.3 million (Resolution Amount) settlement by now bankrupt radiation oncology and cancer care provider 21st Century Oncology, Inc. (21CO)  is paying to settle Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy and Security Rules violation charges and other continuing post-breach fallout that helped push 21CO to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection demonstrates again why HIPAA-covered health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses and their business associates (covered entities) must make HIPAA compliance and risk management a high priority in 2018.

Distinctive as the first HIPAA resolution agreement requiring bankruptcy court approval  and for the bankruptcy court’s order including a direction to the covered entity’s cyber liability insurer to pay the Resolution Payment and other investigation defense expenses, the 21CO resolution agreement resolves potential civil monetary penalty exposures the Fort Myers, Florida based provider of cancer care services and radiation oncology could have faced from the Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights (OCR) charges it violated HIPAA’s Privacy and Security Rules arising from the hacking and misappropriation of records containing sensitive electronic protected health information (ePHI) of up to 2,213597 individuals.

When their own 2018 HIPAA or other compliance investigation activities or planning HIPAA compliance and risk management activities, covered entities and their business associates and their leaders should use 21CO’s painful post-breach lessons experience to minimize their own HIPAA breach exposures, as well as consider how amendments to Internal Revenue Code Section 162(f) might impact the tax deductibility of certain compliance expenditures.

 21CO HIPAA Breaches & Fallout

The OCR charges against 21CO arose from an OCR investigation commenced after the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) notified 21CO on November 13, 2015 and a second time on December 13, 2015 than unauthorized third-party illegally obtained 21CO sensitive patient information and produced 21CO patient files purchased by a FBI informant.  As part of its internal investigation, 21CO hired a third party forensic auditing firm in November 2015. 21CO determined that the attacker may have accessed 21CO’s network SQL database as early as October 3, 2015, through Remote Desktop Protocol from an Exchange Server within 21CO’s network. 21CO determined that it is possible that 2,213,597 individuals may have been affected by the impermissible access to their names, social security numbers, physicians’ names, diagnoses, treatment and insurance information.

Although it knew of the breaches in November and December, 2015, 21CO delayed notifying patients of the data breach for more than three months after the FBI notified it of the breaches before it sent HIPAA or other breach notifications about the data breach to patients or notified investors in March, 2016. Its March 4, 2016 Securities and Exchange Commission 8-K on Data Security Incident (Breach 8-K) states 21CO delayed notification at the request of the FBI to avoid interfering in the criminal investigation of the breach.

When announcing the breach, 21CO provided all individuals affected by the breach with a free one-year subscription to the Experian ProtectMyID fraud protection service. At that time, 21CO said it had no evidence that any patient information actually had been misused.  However victims of the breach subsequently are claiming being victimized by a variety of scams since the breach in news reports and lawsuits about the breach.

At the time of the breach and its March 4, 2016 announcement of the breach, 21CO already was working to resolve other compliance issues.  On December 16, 2015, 21CO announced that a 21CO  subsidiary had agreed to pay $19.75 million to the United States and $528,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs and comply with a corporate integrity agreement related to a qui tam action in which it was accused of making false claims to Medicare and other federal health programs. See 21CO 8-K Re: Entry into a Material Definitive Agreement (December 22, 2015).  Among other things, the corporate integrity agreement required by that settlement required 21CO to appoint a compliance officer and take other steps to maintain compliance with federal health care laws.  In addition, five days after releasing the March 4, 2017 Breach 8-K, 21CO notified investors that its subsidiary, 21st Century Oncology, Inc. (“21C”), had agreed to pay $37.4 million to settle health care fraud law charges relating to billing and other protocols of certain staff in the utilization of state-of-the-art radiation dose calculation system used by radiation oncologists called GAMMA.  See 21CO 8-K Re: GAMMA Settlement March 9, 2016 ;  See also United States Settles False Claims Act Allegations Against 21st Century Oncology for $34.7 Million.

As the breeches impacted more than 500 individuals, 21CO’s HIPAA breaches were considered large breaches for purposes of the Breach Notification Rules.  It is the policy of OCR to investigate all large breach notifications filed under the HIPAA Breach Notification Rules.

Based on OCR’s subsequent investigation into these breaches, OCR found:

  • 21CO impermissibly disclosed certain PHI of 2,213,597 of its patients in violation of 45 C.F.R. § 164.502(a);
  • 21CO failed to conduct an accurate and thorough assessment of the potential risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of the electronic protected health information (ePHI) held by 21CO in violation of 45 C.F.R. § 164.308(a)(1)(ii)(A);
  • 21CO failed to implement certain security measures sufficient to reduce risks and vulnerabilities to a reasonable and appropriate level to comply with 45 C.F.R. § 164.306(A) in violation of 45 C.F.R. § 164.308(a)(1)(ii)(B);
  •  21CO failed to implement procedures to regularly review records of information system activity, such as audit logs, access reports, and security incident tracking reports as required by 45 C.F.R. §164.308(a)(1)(ii)(D);
  • 21CO disclosed protected health information to a third-party vendors, acting as its business associates, without obtaining satisfactory assurances in the form of a written business associate agreement in violation of HIPAA’s business associate rule requirements under 45 C.F.R. §§ 164.502(e) and 164.308(b)(3).

The Resolution Agreement settles potential charges and exposures to potentially much higher civil monetary penalties that 21CO could have faced had OCR successfully prosecuted charges against 21CO for the breaches.   In return for OCR’s agreement not to further pursue charges or penalties relating to the breach investigation, the Resolution Agreement requires that 21CO pay OCR a $2.3 million Resolution Amount and implement to OCR’s satisfaction a corrective action plan that among other things requires that 21CO complete  the following corrective actions to the satisfaction of OCR:

  • To complete a risk analysis and risk management plan;
  • To revise its HIPAA policies and procedures regarding information system activity review to require the regular review of audit logs, access reports, and security incident tracking reports pursuant to 45 C.F.R. § 164.308(a)(1)(ii)(D);
  • To revise its policies and procedures regarding access establishment and modification and termination pursuant to 45 C.F.R. § 164.308(a)(4)(ii)(C) and 45 C.F.R. § 164.308(a)(3)(ii)(C) to include protocols for access to 21CO’s e-PHI by affiliated physicians, their practices, and their employees.
  • To distribute its policies to and educate its workforce on the updated and other HIPAA policies and procedures;
  • To provide OCR with an accounting of 21CO’s business associates that includes names of business associates, a description of services provided, a description of the business associate’s handling of 21CO’s PHI, the date services began and copies of the actual business associate agreement with each business associate; and
  • Submit an internal monitoring plan to OCR.

In addition to  the OCR investigation that lead to the new HIPAA resolution agreement announced by OCR on December 28, 2017, 21CO experienced other fallout following its March 4, 2016 public disclosure of the breach.  Not surprisingly, the breach notification led to a multitude of class-action civil lawsuits by breach victims and shareholders.  See, e.g., 16 Data Breach Class Action Lawsuits Filed Against 21st Century Oncology Consolidated; 21st Century Oncology data breach prompts multiple lawsuits.  Reports of spoofing and other misleading contacts made to 21CO patients following the breach prompted the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to issue a specific notice alerting victims about potential false breach notifications and other misleading contacts.  See April 4, 2016 FTC Announcement Re: 21st Century Oncology breach exposes patients’ info.

These and other developments also had significant consequences on 21CO’s financial status and leadership.  By March 31, 2015, 21CO notified the SEC and investors that it needed added time to complete its financial statements.  Subsequent SEC filings document its restatement of financial statements, the departure of board members and other leaders,  default on credit terms, and ultimately its filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York on May 25, 2017.

Insurer Funding $2.3 Million Settlement Payment For Bankrupt 21CO

The 21CO resolution agreement required bankruptcy court approval,  Funds for payment of the required $2.3 million resolution payment and other charges associated with the investigation apparently are being provided in part from breach liability insurance coverage provided under a policy issued by Beazley Insurance, as the Bankruptcy Court order directs Beazley Breach Response Policy No. W140E2150301 to make immediate payment to the OCR of the resolution amount and the payment of fees incurred by 21CO in connection with regulatory defense issues.

Settlements Highlight Growing Risks Of Noncompliance, Lack Data Security

One of a growing multitude of multimillion dollar HIPAA resolution agreements to avoid HIPAA civil monetary sanctions that OCR already has announced, the 21CO resolution agreement announcement also comes when a steady stream of reports of massive data breaches at Alteryx, eBay, Paypal owner TIO Networks, Uber, Equifax and a long list of other previously trusted prominent businesses are stoking government and public awareness and concern over health care and other data privacy and cybersecurity.  Beyond their potential HIPAA enforcement exposures, health care or other covered entities experiencing breaches often also face FTC or other government investigations and enforcement under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) and other federal or state identity theft, data privacy and security, electronic crimes and other rules as well as business losses and disruptions; civil litigation from breach victims, shareholders and investors, and business partners as well as OCR, FTC, and state data security regulation enforcement.  Amid this growing concern, OCR has indicated that it intends to continue to diligently both seek to support and encourage voluntary compliance by covered entities and their business associates and  investigate and enforce HIPAA against HIPAA covered entities and their business associates that fail to adequately safeguard PHI and ePHI in accordance with HIPAA. In the face of these growing risks and liabilities, covered entities and their business leaders face a strong imperative to clean up and maintain their HIPAA compliance and other data security to minimize their exposure to similar consequences.

In light of these rises, leaders, investors, insurers, lenders and others involved with covered entities and their business associates should take steps to verify that the covered entities and their business associates not only maintain compliance with HIPAA, but also maintain appropriate practices, insurance and other safeguards to prevent, respond to and mitigate exposures in the event of a breach of protected health information or other sensitive data.

As a part of this planning, covered entities and their business associates also generally will want to add consideration of changes to federal tax rules on the deductibility of compliance penalty and other related compliance expenditures.  While the Internal Revenue Code traditionally has prohibited businesses and individuals from deducting penalties, fines and other expenditures arising from violations of federal or state laws under Section 162(f) of the Internal Revenue Code, Section 13306 of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Creation Act creates a new exception for amounts  (other than amounts paid or incurred any amount paid or incurred as reimbursement to the government or entity for the costs of any investigation or litigation) that a taxpayer establishes meet the following requirements:

  • Constitute restitution (including remediation of property) for damage or harm which was or may be caused by the violation of any law or the potential violation of any law, or
  • Are paid to come into compliance with any law which was violated or otherwise involved in the investigation or inquiry into a violation or potential violation of any law;
  • Are identified as restitution or as an amount paid to come into compliance with such law, as the case may be, in the court order or settlement agreement, and
  • In the case of any amount of restitution for failure to pay any tax imposed under this title in the same manner as if such amount were such tax, would have been allowed as a deduction under this chapter if it had been timely paid.

Because the true effect of these modifications will be impacted by implementing regulations and a number of other special conditions and rules may impact the deductibility of these payments and the reporting obligations attached to their payment, covered entities will want to consult with legal counsel about these rules and monitor their implementation to understand their potential implications on compliance expenditures and penalties.

About The Author

Repeatedly 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, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Council, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation and board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney, management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for health and managed care, employee benefits, insurance and financial services, data and technology and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications. Nationally recognized for her work, experience, leadership and publications on HIPAA and other medical privacy and data use and security, FACTA, GLB, trade secrets and other privacy and data security concerns, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively with clients and the government on cybersecurity, technology and processes and other issues involved in the use and management of medical, insurance and other financial, workforce, trade secrets and other sensitive data and information throughout her career.  Scribe or co-scribe of the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Agency meeting with OCR since 2011 and author of a multitude of highly regarded publications on HIPAA and other health care, insurance, financial and other privacy and data security, Ms. Stamer is widely known for her extensive and leading edge experience, advising, representing, training and coaching health care providers, health plans, healthcare clearinghouses, business associates, their information technology and other solutions providers and vendors, and others on HIPAA and other privacy, data security and cybersecurity design, documentation, administration, audit and oversight, business associate and other data and technology contracting, breach investigation and response, and other related concerns including extensive involvement representing clients in dealings with OCR and other Health & Human Services, Federal Trade Commission, Department of Labor, Department of Treasury, state health, insurance and attorneys’ general, Congress and state legislators and other federal officials.

Ms. Stamer also has an extensive contributes her leadership and insights with other professionals, industry leaders and lawmakers.    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, SHRM, HIMMS, the American Bar Association, the Health Care Compliance Association, a multitude of 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. For additional information about Ms. Stamer, see here, e-mail her here or telephone Ms. Stamer at (214) 452-8297.

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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 reserves 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 presenter and the program sponsor disclaim, and have no responsibility to provide any update or otherwise notify any participant of 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.

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