HIPAA Lessons Every Health Plan, Health Care Provider & Business Associate Should Learn From Bankrupt FileFax’s HIPAA Settlement

Health care providers, health plans and insurers, health care clearinghouses (Covered Entities) and their business associates within the meaning of the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA) should heed the warnings contained in the new Resolution Agreement (FileFax Resolution Agreement) with former HIPAA business associate FileFax, Inc. announced by the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) about their own need to ensure that they and their business associates comply with HIPAA’s business associate and other Privacy, Security, Breach Notification rules as well as the advisability of tightening up their risk management and oversight of business associates that handle protected health information (PHI).

Significant for business associates as what appears to be the first announced resolution agreement with a business associate directly charged by OCR with violating HIPAA and the second resolution agreement pursued and reached with a HIPAA-regulated entity in bankruptcy, the FileFax, Inc. Resolution Agreement OCR announced February 13, 2018 also contains critical lessons for Covered Entities about their dealings with their own business associates when read in conjunction with the April, 2017 resolution agreement the Center for Children’s Digestive Health (CCDH) agreed to resolve OCR charges CCDC, as a Covered Entity, violated HIPAA by allowing FileFax, Inc. to act as its business associate without adequately complying with HIPAA’s business associate requirements.

With widespread media coverage over large scale breaches of health care and other sensitive information placing further pressure upon OCR and other governmental agencies to act to protect Americans’ privacy and data fueling even greater demands for OCR and other agencies to take meaningful action to enforce HIPAA and other privacy and data security requirements, health plans, health care providers, health care clearinghouses (Covered Entities) and their business associates can expect OCR and other agencies to continue to turn up the heat on investigation and enforcement of HIPAA compliance.

In the face of these developments, Covered Entities, their business associates and those responsible for their leadership and operations need to recognize and take the necessary steps both effectively to manage their own HIPAA compliance and risk management as well as to anticipate and make provision to deal with the likelihood that they may face HIPAA responsibilities, exposures and other fallout from their own or another business partner’s breach of PHI or other sensitive data or other HIPAA violations, bankruptcy or other business distress, or other compliance or business event.

HIPAA Privacy, Security & Breach Notification Rule Responsibilities & Risks

The Privacy Rule requires that Covered Entities and their vendors that qualify as “business associates” under HIPAA comply with detailed requirements concerning the protection, use, access, destruction and disclosure of PHI.  As part of these requirements, Covered Entities and their business associates must adopt, administer and enforce detailed policies and practices, assess, monitor and maintain the security of electronic protected health information (ePHI) and other protected health information, provide notices of privacy practices and breaches of “unsecured” ePHI, afford individuals that are the subject of protected health information certain rights and comply with other requirements as specified by the Privacy, Security and Breach Notification Rules.  In addition, Covered Entities and business associates also must enter into a written and signed business associate agreement that contains the elements specified in Privacy Rule § 164.504(e) before the business associate creates, uses, accesses or discloses PHI of the Covered Entity. Furthermore, the Privacy Rule includes extensive documentation and keeping requirements require that Covered Entities and BAs maintain copies of these BAAs for a minimum of six years and to provide that documentation to OCR upon demand.

Violations of the Privacy Rule can carry stiff civil monetary penalties or even criminal penalties.  Pursuant to amendments to HIPAA enacted as part of the HITECH Act, civil penalties typically do not apply to violations punished under the criminal penalty rules of HIPAA set forth in Social Security Act , 42 U.S.C § 1320d-6 (Section 1177).

Resolution Agreements the just announced FileFax Resolution Agreement allow Covered Entities and business associates to resolve potentially substantially larger civil monetary penalty liabilities that OCR can impose under the civil enforcement provisions of HIPAA for HIPAA violations through a negotiated settlement process.  As amended by the HITECH Act, the civil enforcement provisions of HIPAA empower OCR to impose Civil Monetary Penalties on both Covered Entities and BAs for violations of any of the requirements of the Privacy or Security Rules.  The penalty ranges for civil violations depends upon the circumstances associated with the violations and are subject to upward adjustment for inflation.  As most recently adjusted here effective September 6, 2016, the following currently are the progressively increasing Civil Monetary Penalty tiers:

  • A minimum penalty of $100 and a maximum penalty of $50,000 per violation, for violations which the CE or BA “did not know, and by exercising reasonable diligence would not have known” about using “the business care and prudence expected from a person seeking to satisfy a legal requirement under similar circumstances;”
  • A minimum penalty of $1,000 and a maximum penalty of $50,000 per violation, for violations for “reasonable cause” which do not rise to the level of “willful neglect” where “reasonable cause” means the “circumstances that would make it unreasonable for the Covered Entity, despite the exercise of ordinary business care and prudence, to comply with the violated Privacy Rule requirement;”
  • A minimum penalty of $10,000 and a maximum penalty of $50,000 per violation, for violations attributed to “willful neglect,” defined as “the conscious, intentional failure or reckless indifference to the obligation to comply” with the requirement or prohibition; and
  • A minimum penalty of $50,000 and a maximum penalty of $1.5 million per violation, for violations attributed to “willful neglect” not remedied within 30 days of the date that the Covered Entity or BA knew or should have known of the violation.

For continuing violations such as failing to implement a required BAA, OCR can treat each day of noncompliance as a separate violation.  However, sanctions under each of these tiers generally are subject to a maximum penalty of $1,500,000 for violations of identical requirements or prohibitions during a calendar year.  For violations such as the failure to implement and maintain a required BAA where more than one Covered Entity bears responsibility for the violation, OCR an impose Civil Monetary Penalties against each culpable party. OCR considers a variety of mitigating and aggravating facts and circumstances when arriving at the amount of the penalty within each of these applicable tiers to impose.

In addition to these potential civil liability exposures, Covered Entities, their business associates and other individuals or organizations that wrongfully use, access or disclose electronic or other protected health information also can face civil liability under various circumstances.  The criminal enforcement provisions of HIPAA authorize the Justice Department to prosecute a person who knowingly in violation of the Privacy Rule (1) uses or causes to be used a unique health identifier; (2) obtains individually identifiable health information relating to an individual; or (3) discloses individually identifiable health information to another person, punishable by the following criminal sanctions and penalties:

  • A fine of up to $50,000, imprisoned not more than 1 year, or both;
  • If the offense is committed under false pretenses, a fine of up to $100,000, imprisonment of not more than 5 years, or both; and
  • If the offense is committed with intent to sell, transfer, or use individually identifiable health information for commercial advantage, personal gain, or malicious harm, a fine of up to $250,000, imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both.

Because HIPAA Privacy Rule criminal violations are Class A Misdemeanors or felonies, Covered Entities and business associates should include HIPAA compliance in their Federal Sentencing Guideline Compliance Programs and practices and need to be concerned both about criminal exposure for their own direct violations, as well as imputed organizational liability for violations committed by their employees or agents under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, particularly where their failure to implement or administer these required compliance policies and practices or failure to properly investigate or redress potential violations enables, perpetuates or covers up the criminal breach.

FileFax, Inc.  Breach & Resolution Agreement

While Congress amended the Civil Monetary Penalty provisions of HIPAA enforced by OCR to make many of the requirements and Civil Monetary Penalty sanctions of HIPAA directly enforceable by OCR against business associates as part of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, enacted as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the FileFax Resolution Agreement appears to be the first HIPAA resolution agreement with a business associate announced by OCR.

Indeed, OCR’s enforcement action that resulted in the FileFax Resolution Agreement would never have occurred had FileFax, Inc. not become involved in handling medical records containing PHI in the capacity of a business associate for Covered Entities.

Before filing for bankruptcy in 2016, FileFax, Inc. advertised it provided HIPAA-compliant storage, maintenance, and delivery of medical records for HIPAA Covered Entities including Illinois based health care provider CCDC, which entered into a resolution agreement with OCR in April, 2017 to resolve OCR charges that it violated HIPAA by allowing FileFax, Inc. to handle PHI without fulfilling HIPAA’s business associate agreement requirements.

Like the CCDC Resolution Agreement, the FileFax, Inc. Resolution Agreement resulted from an investigation of FileFax, Inc. that OCR began in response to a February 10, 2015 anonymous complaint filed with OCR about FileFax, Inc. about deficiencies in its delivery of these HIPAA services in its capacity as a business associate to Covered Entities. The complaint to OCR alleged that FileFax, Inc. violated these requirements because an individual transported medical records obtained from FileFax, Inc. to a shredding and recycling facility to sell on February 6 and 9, 2015.

OCR’s investigation of the complaint against FileFax, Inc. confirmed that an individual had left medical records of approximately 2,150 patients at the shredding and recycling facility, and that these medical records contained patients’ PHI.  OCR’s investigation additionally found that between January 28, 2015, and February 14, 2015, FileFax, Inc. impermissibly disclosed the PHI of 2,150 individuals by leaving the PHI in an unlocked truck in the FileFax, Inc.  parking lot, or by granting permission to an unauthorized person to remove the PHI from FileFax, Inc. and leaving the PHI unsecured outside the FileFax, Inc. facility.

After OCR commenced its investigation of the complaint, FileFax, Inc. was placed into bankruptcy and a receiver was appointed to liquidate FileFax, Inc.’s assets for distribution to creditors and others in 2016.  Despite the bankruptcy, OCR continued to pursue enforcement against FileFax, Inc. for the HIPAA violations it found through its investigation.  On February 13, 2018, OCR announced that that the receiver on behalf of FileFax, Inc. had agreed in the FileFax Resolution Agreement to pay a $100,000 monetary settlement out of the bankruptcy estate and to arrange to properly store and dispose of remaining medical records found at FileFax, Inc.’s facility in compliance with HIPAA to resolve OCR’s HIPAA charges against FileFax, Inc.

OCR Previously Sanctioned Covered Entity For Involvement With FileFax, Inc.

Beyond affirming the exposure business associates to OCR civil monetary penalties or other enforcement for violating HIPAA, the FileFax Resolution Agreement in conjunction with OCR’s previously announced April 20, 2017 resolution agreement (CCDC Resolution Agreement) with CCDC also demonstrates the need for Covered Entities to recognize that their organizations are likely to face HIPAA investigations or enforcement from HIPAA violations by or OCR audits or investigations of the conduct of their business associates.

In fact, this is exactly what happened to CCDC.  A small, Illinois based Covered Entity, CCDC used FileFax, Inc. to store and dispose of medical records.  As a consequence of the FileFax, Inc. investigation, OCR conducted a compliance review of CCDC.  OCR reports that its compliance review revealed that while CCDC had disclosed to and allowed FileFax, Inc. to store records containing PHI for CCDC since in 2003, neither party could produce a signed business associate agreement (BAA) prior to October 12, 2015.   As a consequence, OCR charged CCDC with violating HIPAA by disclosing PHI to FileFax, Inc. in violation of HIPAA’s business associate requirements.

To resolve its exposure to potentially much greater civil monetary penalties associated with this charge, CCDC agreed under the CCDC Resolution Agreement to pay OCR a $31,000 resolution payment and take a variety of corrective actions.  Beyond requiring CCDC to implement and maintain  written business associate agreements before allowing business associates to possess or access PHI, the corrective action plan imposed as part of the CCDC Resolution Agreement also expressly requires CCDC to promptly investigate information of a possible violation of its HIPAA policies and procedures by  a “workforce member,” which the Privacy Rule defines to include a business associate, and if the investigation reveals a violation, to report the violation and corrective action taken to OCR.

OCR Enforces HIPAA Against Covered Entities & Business Associates In Bankruptcy

OCR’s announcement of the FileFax Resolution Agreement also is significant in its reaffirmation of OCR to its commitment to HIPAA enforcement, even if the HIPAA-violating Covered Entity or business associate goes bankruptcy.

OCR’s enforcement action against FileFax, Inc. despite its bankruptcy and its successful negotiation of the FileFax Resolution Agreement within the bankruptcy should alert Covered Entities and business associates that OCR does not consider the bankruptcy of a Covered Entity or business associate as an obstacle to OCR enforcement against Covered Entities or business associates that violate HIPAA.   The seriousness of OCR’s commitment to enforcement, even in the face of bankruptcy is driven home by its announcement of the FileFax Resolution Agreement on the heels of its December, 2017 announcement of its first OCR HIPAA resolution agreement secured with the formal approval of a bankruptcy court, a resolution agreement (21CO Resolution Agreement) against bankrupt health care provider, 21CO.

Secured with bankruptcy court approval, the 21CO Resolution Agreement resolved potentially much larger civil monetary penalties that the Fort Myers, Florida based provider of cancer care services and radiation oncology could have faced for alleged HIPAA breaches OCR charged it committed in connection with its failure to adequately act to prevent and respond to hacking and misappropriation of records containing sensitive electronic protected health information (ePHI) of up to 2,213597 individuals.

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 waited 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 some victims of the breach subsequently have claimed 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.

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).

In return for OCR’s agreement not to further pursue charges or penalties relating to the breach investigation, the Resolution Agreement entered into with the approval of the Bankruptcy Court 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 a detailed series of corrective actions to the satisfaction of OCR.

In addition to the OCR investigation that lead to the 21CO 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.

Because 21CO sought bankruptcy court protection from the fallout of its HIPAA breaches and other compliance and business issues, 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.

HIPAA & Data Breach Enforcement & Other Risks Growing 

Covered Entities, their business associates, their leaders, investors and members of their workforce need to recognize that the FileFax, CCDC, 21CO and other resolution agreements are part of a growing trend, rather than isolated incidents of enforcement and that their exposure to investigation and enforcement is likely to continue to rise in the face of growing public and Congressional concern about privacy and data security.

While civil monetary penalty enforcement remains much more common than criminal prosecution, Covered Entities, their business associates and members of their workforce must understand that HIPAA enforcement and resulting liability is growing and that this trend is likely to continue if not increase.

While Department of Justice federal criminal prosecutions and convictions under HIPAA remain relatively rare, they occur and are growing.  See e.g.,  Former Hospital Employee Sentenced for HIPAA Violations (Texas man sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for obtaining protected health information with the intent to use it for personal gain); Three Life Sentences Imposed On Man Following Convictions For Drug Trafficking, Kidnapping, Using Firearms and HIPAA Violations (drug king pin gets multiple 10 year consecutive prison terms for unauthorized access to private health information in violation of HIPAA; his health care worker friend sentenced for accessing electronic medical files and reporting information to him); Former Therapist Charged In HIPAA Case; Hefty Prison Sentence in ID Theft Case (former assisted living facility worker gets 37 months in prison after pleading guilty to wrongful disclosure of HIPAA protected information and other charges); Hefty Prison Sentence in ID Theft Case (former medical supply company owner sentenced to 12 years for HIPAA violations and fraud).  While the harshest sentences tend to be associated with health care fraud or other criminal conduct, lighter criminal sentences are imposed against defendants in other cases as well. See e.g., Sentencing In S.C. Medicaid Breach Case (former South Carolina state employee sentenced to three years’ probation, plus community service, for sending personal information about more than 228,000 Medicaid recipients to his personal e-mail account.); HIPAA Violation Leads To Prison Term (former UCLA Healthcare System surgeon gets four months in prison after admitting he illegally read private electronic medical records of celebrities and others.)

While criminal enforcement of HIPAA remains relatively rare and OCR to date only actually has assessed HIPAA civil monetary penalties against certain Covered Entities for violating HIPAA in a couple isolated instances, the growing list of multi-million dollar resolution payments against Covered Entities and with the FileFax Resolution Agreement announcement, now also business associates for violating HIPAA make clear that HIPAA enforcement is both meaningful and growing.   See e.g., Learn From Children’s New $3.2M+ HIPAA CMP For “Knowing” Violation of HIPAA Security Rules ($3.2 million Children’s Medical Center HIPAA Civil Monetary Penalty);  1st HIPAA Privacy Civil Penalty of $4.3 Million Signals CMS Serious About HIPAA Enforcement;  $400K HIPAA Settlement Shows Need To Conduct Timely & Appropriate Risk Assessments; $5.5M Memorial HIPAA Resolution Agreement Shows Need To Audit.  For more examples, also see here.

The experiences of FileFax, Inc., CCDC, 21CO and these other OCR HIPAA Resolution Agreements provide strong evidence that that health plans and other Covered Entities and their business associates can anticipate that OCR will continue to zealously investigate HIPAA breaches and other HIPAA violations.  Aside from OCR’s recurrent affirmations of its commitment to HIPAA enforcement, Covered Entities, their business associates and their leaders must recognize that public and Congressional privacy and data security concerns fueled by the ever growing stream of massive data breaches at Alteryx, eBay, Paypal owner TIO Networks, Uber, Equifax and a long list of other previously trusted prominent businesses are creating additional pressure upon OCR and other agencies to pursue even stronger and more aggressive HIPAA oversight and enforcement. Amid this growing concern, OCR, the FTC and other federal and state agencies with regulatory or enforcement authority over HIPAA or other data security and privacy concerns face increasing scrutiny and pressure to take meaningful action to regulate and enforce HIPAA and other laws intended to protect sensitive data even as private litigants enjoy increasing success in obtaining civil judgments from damages resulting from breaches of their PHI or other sensitive personal information using an expanding arsenal of legal theories of recovery.  In the face of these growing concerns about privacy and data security, OCR can be expected to continue, if not increase its HIPAA compliance enforcement and oversight by OCR.

Furthermore, the experiences of FileFax, Inc., 21CO, CCDC and other Covered Entities and business associates that already have become the subject of OCR investigation or enforcement also reflect that HIPAA resolution payments or penalties paid to OCR and other costs and expenses associated with the defense and resolution of OCR’s investigations and enforcement actions typically only a portion of the financial and other business consequences that Covered Entities or business associates might expect to incur as a consequence of a breach of PHI or other substantial HIPAA violation or charge.

Beyond their potential HIPAA enforcement exposures following a HIPAA covered data breach or other violation, health care or other Covered Entities and members of their workforce experiencing breaches of ePHI or other PHI often also face FTC or other government investigations and enforcement relating their data breaches under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) and other federal or state identity theft, data privacy and security, electronic crimes and other laws.  They or members of their workforce may face licensing board, credentialing, accreditation, contractual or other investigations or sanctions.  Victims, business partners, investors and others often bring civil litigation to address losses or other injures associated with the breach or other misconduct.  In addition, losses and disruptions in patients, plan member, vendor, investor, employee, management and other business relationships, and other business disruptions also are common.

Where the breach of other HIPAA violation involves a health plan, health plans, their fiduciaries and sponsors also need to give due consideration to the implications and exposures that might arise under the fiduciary responsibility rules of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). Beyond the direct exposure of their health plan to HIPAA and other compliance liabilities, health plan fiduciaries generally will want to consider whether their fiduciary responsibility under ERISA requires that prudent or other steps be taken to safeguard health plan information and maintain and administer their health plan in accordance with HIPAA and other laws.  As a consequence, fiduciaries generally will want to ensure that they take and document prudent steps to evaluate, monitor and address HIPAA and other privacy and data security safeguards to minimize not only the liability exposures of their health plans, but also to help mitigate their own potential personal liability exposures that could arise or be asserted in response to a HIPAA breach or other HIPAA violation involving their health plans.

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 addition to reaffirming the need for Covered Entities and their business associates to take the necessary steps to maintain and effectively demonstrate the adequacy of their own HIPAA compliance, the CCDC and FileFax Resolution Agreements alert Covered Entities and business associates of the advisability of greater oversight and risk management of their dealings and relationships with the other Covered Entities and business associates with access to or involvement with their PHI or other critical functions.

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 and its business associate and other privacy, data security and breach notification and response requirements, 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.  The bankruptcies and other financial and business fallout of HIPAA or other data breaches experienced by FileFax, Inc. 21CO and other HIPAA-covered and non-HIPAA regulated entities also makes clear that Covered Entities and business associates should anticipate that their own fallout from a breach or other HIPAA event and resulting responsibilities and consequences could be impacted by their own or a business associate’s financial distress or bankruptcy.  Beyond the risk that their own or another entity’s breach, compliance issues, or other financial or business issues could trigger breach investigation, notice or other responsibilities for their own organizations, Covered Entities, business associates and their leaders also should evaluate and revise their HIPAA risk assessments and security plans to address foreseeable threats to the availability, access, retention and security of PHI and associated records and systems.

The Bankruptcy Court’s order to 21CO’s cyber liability insurer to pay the resolution payment required under the 21CO Resolution Agreement and other costs of investigation and defense also strongly suggests that the purchase of insurance and other arrangements for funding costs of defense or settlement should be included in these evaluations.

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 comply with data security, privacy and other information protection requirements arising under other laws, regulations, and contracts, as well as the practical business risks that typically follow the announcement of a breach.  Considering these risks, Covered Entities and their business associates should recognize the advisability of taking meaningful, documented action to verify their existing compliance and ongoing oversight to ensure their organizations can demonstrate appropriate action to 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 part of these efforts, Covered Entities and their business associates should ensure that they have conducted, and maintain and are ready to produce appropriate policies and procedures backed up by a well-documented, up-to-date industry wide risk assessment of their organization’s susceptibility to breaches or other misuse of electronic or other protected health information.  The starting point of these efforts should be to adopt and enforce updated written policies, procedures, technical and physical safeguards, processes and training to prevent the improper use, access, destruction or disclosure of patient PHI.  Processes also should create, retain and be designed to cost effectively track, capture, and retain both all protected health information, its use, access, protection, destruction and disclosure, and the requisite supportive documentation supporting the appropriateness of those action to position the organization cost-effectively and quickly to fulfill required accounting, reporting and other needs in the event of a data breach, audit, participant inquiry or other event.

As part of this process, Covered Entities and business associates should maintain strong and ongoing processes for assessing and monitoring the adequacy of their policies and practices.  In addition to ensuring that their organization has a comprehensive risk management and compliance assessment, Covered Entities and business associates need to conduct documented periodic audits and spot HIPAA audits and assessments.  In doing so, they must use care to look outside the four corners of their Privacy Policies and core operating systems to ensure that their policies, practices, oversight and training address all protected health information within their operations on an entity wide basis. This entity-wide assessment should include communications and requests for information normally addressed to the Privacy Officer as well as requests and communications that could arise in the course of media or other public relations, practice transition, workforce communication and other operations not typically under the direct oversight and management of the Privacy Officer.

In connection with these efforts, the enforcement actions make clear that Covered Entities and business associates should adopt, implement and monitor PHI privacy, and security on an entity wide basis.  These efforts should include general policies, practices and procedures as well as specifically tailored policies, processes and training to protect PHI and preserve HIPAA compliance throughout their organization. Testing and analysis should be conducted on a regular basis.  Documented reassessments and testing should be performed in response to software, hardware or other changes or events that could impact security or other operations.  Beyond security, attention also should cover business or system interruption including losses that might occur from the bankruptcy, termination of business or other disruptions of business associates or other parties.  Attention should be paid both to protecting access and use of PHI and ePHI in the course of business as well as the transmission, transport, storage and destruction of records or systems containing such information.

Careful attention should be devoted to ensuring that business associate agreements   as well and other processes provide for HIPAA compliance with respect to all PHI created, used, accessed or disclosed to business associates or others not part of their direct workforce or operating outside the core boundaries of their facilities.

Covered entities and their business associates also must recognize and design their compliance efforts and documentation recognizing that HIPAA compliance is a living process, which require both constant diligence about changes in systems or other events that may require reevaluation or adjustments, whether from changes in software, systems or processes or external threats.

Because the cost of responding to and investigating breaches or other compliance concern can be quite burdensome, Covered Entities and their business associates also generally will want to pursue options to plan for and minimize potential expenses in the design and administration of their programs as well as to minimize and cover the potentially extraordinary costs of breach or other compliance investigation and results that commonly arise following a breach or other compliance event.  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 health care providers, health plans, insurers and financial services, and other 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.

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 here including:

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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.

Circular 230 Compliance. The following disclaimer is included to ensure that we comply with U.S. Treasury Department Regulations. Any statements contained herein are not intended or written by the writer to be used, and nothing contained herein can be used by you or any other person, for the purpose of (1) avoiding penalties that may be imposed under federal tax law, or (2) promoting, marketing or recommending to another party any tax-related transaction or matter addressed herein.

©2018 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.™  For information about republication, please contact the author directly. All other rights reserved.


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