Health Care Providers & Other HIPAA Regulated Entities Encouraged To Share Input To OCR On HITECH Act Rules Impacting HIPAA Security Breach Audit & Penalty Exposures

June 6, 2022 is the deadline for health plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries, administrative and other business associates and others to provide input to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) that OCR says it seeks to help shape how it defines and implements the “recognized security standards” requirements of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act of 2009 (HITECH Act), as amended in 2021 for purposes of its administration and enforcement of civil monetary penalty and other provisions of of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“”HIPAA”). The regulatory and enforcement decisions that OCR makes could significantly impact the civil monetary penalty liability, compliance, audit and recordkeeping responsibilities that health plans, health care providers, health care clearinghouses and their business associates (“Covered Entities”) face under the HIPAA Security and Breach Notification Rules.

OCR is inviting public input on two issues under the OCR Request for Information on Considerations for Implementing the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, as Amended (RFI) released April 6, 2022:

  • The definition and administration of the “recognized security practice” factor the HITECH Act requires OCR to consider when assessing audit results, civil monetary penalty and settlement amounts and other HIPAA Security and Breach Rule enforcement; and
  • The rules that OCR will follow to determine when and how OCR will share portions of amounts it receives from civil monetary penalties or settlements with individuals harmed by breaches of electronic protected health information, 

Recognized Security Practices

Section 13412 of the HITECH Act requires HHS to take into consideration certain recognized security practices of covered entities (health plans, health care clearinghouses, and most health care providers) and business associates1 when determining potential fines, audit results, or other remedies for resolving potential violations of the HIPAA Security Rule pursuant to an investigation, compliance review, or audit. 

A primary goal of the requirement, which took effect January 5, 2021, is to encourage covered entities and business associates to do “everything in their power to safeguard patient data.”

The RFI solicits comment on how covered entities and business associates are implementing “recognized security practices,” how they anticipate adequately demonstrating that recognized security practices are in place, and any implementation issues they would like OCR to clarify through future guidance or rulemaking.

Civil Money Penalty (CMP) and Settlement Sharing

Section 13410(c)(3) of the HITECH Act requires HHS to establish by regulation a methodology under which an individual harmed by a potential violation of the HIPAA Privacy, Security, and/or Breach Notification Rules may receive a percentage of any CMP or monetary settlement collected with respect to that offense.

Section 13140(d)(1) of HITECH requires that OCR base determinations of appropriate penalty amounts on the nature and extent of the violation and the nature and extent of the harm resulting from such violation. The HITECH Act does not define “harm,” nor does it provide direction to aid HHS in defining the term.

The RFI solicits public comment on the types of harms that should be considered in the distribution of CMPs and monetary settlements to harmed individuals, discusses potential methodologies for sharing and distributing monies to harmed individuals, and invites the public to submit alternative methodologies.

Comments Due 6/6

Health plan and other Covered Entity input could significantly impact how OCR implements and administers these two important aspects of the HIPAA Security Rule going forward.  As these decisions are likely to significantly impact the policies, practices, recordkeeping, breach investigation and other obligations that Covered Entities would need to meet in the event of an audit, breach or other investigation or enforcement, timely, thoughtful input from all Covered Entities and affected stakeholders is important.  In addition, its decisions on how to distribute CMPs.

For more information about the RFI or instructions for submitting comments, see here.

HITECH & Other HIPAA Security Exposures Already Significant & Growing

Regardless of how OCR choses to respond to the comments received in response to the RIF, Covered Entities, their business associates and those responsible for their leadership already face significant exposure from breaches of protected health information and other lax cybersecurity practices, policies and management.

This is a lesson Texas Ear, Nose and Throat Specialists (“Texas ENT”) and a multitude of other coveered entities have learned the hard way in recent years.

HIPAA generally requires that health care providers like Texas ENT, health plans, healthcare clearinghouses Covered Entities safeguard the privacy and security of individually identifiable protected health information (“protected health information”) in paper, electronic or other form against use, access or disclosure other than as allowed by HIPAA.  Along with its general restrictions upon use, access or disclosure of protected health information, HIPAA also requires that covered entities and their business associates take the special precautions to protect electronic protected health information (“ePHI”) against improper access, use, disclosure or loss required by the OCR HIPAA Security Rule.  Meanwhile, the OCR HIPAA Breach Notification Rule requires that covered entities notify affected individuals, OCR and in the case of breaches involving records of more than 500 individuals, the media in accordance with the OCR Breach Notification Rule following breach of unsecured protected health information. Breaches of the Security or Breach Notification Rules often result in significant civil monetary penalty assessments or negotiated settlements to mitigate civil liability exposures arising out of such breaches.  See e.g.,  Clinical Laboratory Pays $25,000 To Settle Potential HIPAA Security Rule Violations (May 25, 2021); Health Insurer Pays $5.1 Million to Settle Data Breach Affecting Over 9.3 Million People (January 15, 2021); Aetna Pays $1,000,000 to Settle Three HIPAA Breaches (October 28, 2020); Health Insurer Pays $6.85 Million to Settle Data Breach Affecting Over 10.4 Million People (September 25, 2020); HIPAA Business Associate Pays $2.3 Million to Settle Breach Affecting Protected Health Information of Over 6 million Individual – (September 23, 2020); Lifespan Pays $1,040,000 to OCR to Settle Unencrypted Stolen Laptop Breach (July 27, 2020); Small Health Care Provider Fails to Implement Multiple HIPAA Security Rule Requirements (July 23, 2020).  While various factors can influence whether and the amount of any fine that Texas ENT will face as a result of OCR’s ongoing investigation of the breach, OCR’s enforcement record strongly suggests Texas ENT may seek to negotiate a resolution agreement or other arrangement with OCR to mitigate its exposure to potential civil monetary penalties.

Alerts issued by OCR regarding heightened security risks in recent months and a growing tide of highly publicized breaches send a strong warning to other covered entities and their business associates to reconfirm the adequacy of their own HIPAA privacy, security, breach notification and other procedures and protections by among other things:

  • Reviewing and monitoring on a documented, ongoing basis the adequacy and susceptibilities of existing practices, policies, safeguards of their own organizations, as well as their business associates and their vendors within the scope of attorney-client privilege taking into consideration data available from OCR, data regarding known or potential susceptibilities within their own operations as well as in the media, and other developments to determine if additional steps are necessary or advisable.
  • Updating policies, privacy and other notices, practices, procedures, training and other practices as needed to promote compliance and defensibility.
  • Renegotiating and enhancing service provider agreements to detail the specific compliance, audit, oversight and reporting rights, workforce and vendor credentialing and access control, indemnification, insurance, cooperation and other rights and responsibilities of all entities and individuals that use, access or disclose, or provide systems, software or other services or tools that could impact on security; to clarify the respective rights, procedures and responsibilities of each party in regards to compliance audits, investigation, breach reporting, and mitigation; and other relevant matters.
  • Verifying and tightening technological and other tracking, documentation and safeguards and controls to the use, access and disclosure of protected health information and systems.
  • Conducting well-documented training as necessary to ensure that members of the workforce of each covered entity and business associate understand and are prepared to comply with the expanded requirements of HIPAA, understand their responsibilities and appropriate procedures for reporting and investigating potential breaches or other compliance concerns, and understand as well as are prepared to follow appropriate procedures for reporting and responding to suspected
    violations or other indicia of potential security concerns.
  • Tracking and reviewing on a systemized, well-documented basis actual and near miss security threats to evaluate, document decision-making and make timely adjustments to policies, practices, training, safeguards and other compliance components as necessary to identify and resolve risks.
  • Establishing and providing well-documented monitoring of compliance that includes board level oversight and reporting at least quarterly and sooner in response to potential threat indicators.
  • Establishing and providing well-documented timely investigation and redress of reported
    violations or other compliance concerns.
  • Establishing contingency plans for responding in the event of a breach. 
  • Establishing a well-documented process for monitoring and updating policies, practices and other efforts in response to changes in risks, practices and requirements.
  • Preparing and maintaining a well-documented record of compliance, risk, investigation and other security activities.
  • Pursuing other appropriate strategies to enhance the covered entity’s ability to demonstrate its compliance commitment both on paper and in operation.

Because susceptibilities in systems, software and other vendors of business associates, covered entities and their business associates should use care to assess and manage business associate and other vendor associated risks and compliance as well as tighten business associate and other service agreements to promote the improved cooperation, coordination, management and oversight required to comply with the new breach notification and other HIPAA requirements by specifically mapping out these details.

Depending on how OCR responds to the input it receives from its April 6, 2022 RFI, additional safeguards also may be advisable in the future.  Covered Entities, and their leaders and insurers should carefully monitor OCR’s actions in this regard.  

Cybersecurity & Breach Exposures Beyond HIPAA

Covered entities, their business associates and their leaders should keep in mind that their cybersecurity responsibilities and liability exposures likely extend well beyond HIPAA. Health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses, business associates and other service providers and other businesses and their leaders also generally face significant risk for failing to properly handle cybersecurity and breaches under a myriad of federal and state laws, regulations, common law, contracts and other sources. Examples include the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (“FACTA”), the Federal Trade Act (the “FTA”), the False Claims Act liability for violating Medicare, Medicaid, government contractor and other conditions of participation, various federal and state cybersecurity, identity theft, electronic crimes and other statutes and regulations, shareholder, business partner, and customer claims and others.

Where the business is a public company regulated by the Security and Exchange Commission (“SEC”), these risks and their implications on shareholder and investor risk from cybersecurity deficiencies also could create securities exposures for organizations and their leaders as the SEC now is prioritizing cybersecurity investigation and enforcement against public companies and other market participants for lack cybersecurity governance, safeguards or disclosures.  See e.g., SEC Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations Cybersecurity and Resiliency Observations.  Along announcing its commitment to hold market involved and impacting regulated entities accountable for failing to maintain and enforce appropriate internal and external controls to prevent, detect and redress cybersecurity threats, including appropriate board governance and risk management, access rights and controls, data loss prevention, mobile security, incident response and resiliency, vendor management, training and awareness, investor disclosures and other practices. 

Where the Covered Entity is a health plan or health plan business associate, these risks also could include fiduciary liability risk under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. See e.g., HIPAA & ERISA Fiduciary Rules Drive Imperative To Protect Health Plan Data & Systems From Hacking & Other Cyber Threats.

These are just some of the emerging cybersecurity risks and responsibilities that covered entities, their leaders, service providers and insurers need to watch and manage. Amber M. Rivers, Director of the Employee Benefit Security Administration Office of Health Plan Standards and Compliance will discuss these and other risks during the “Department of Labor Health Plan Compliance and Enforcement Update” at a virtual program hosted by the American Bar Association Joint Committee on Employee Benefits from Noon to 1:30 p.m. Central Time on May 5, 2022 to be moderated by Solutions Law Press, Inc. author and publisher, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer will moderate the program. For additional information about or to register for this program, see here.

Considering these and other developments, Covered Entities, their leaders, insurers and other impacted parties should seriously consider submitting thoughtful comments to OCR in response to its April 6, RFI as well as tightening and using careful, well-documented practices to ensure their ability to demonstrate their use and administration of appropriate cybersecurity, breach investigation and other data security practices.  

For Additional Information Or Assistance

If you need have questions or need assistance with health, health or other insurance, employee benefit, payroll, investment or other data, systems or other privacy or security related risk management, compliance, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer may be able to help.  Longtime scribe for the American Bar Association Joint Committee on Employee Benefits agency meeting with OCR and author of leading publications on HIPAA and other privacy and data security concerns, Ms. Stamer regularly assists clients and provides input to Congress, OCR and other agencies, publishes and speaks extensively on medical and other privacy and cybersecurity, health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns.

As a part of this work, she has continuously and extensively worked with domestic and international health and other employee benefit plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries, administrators, and insurers; managed care and insurance organizations; hospitals, health care systems, clinics, skilled nursing, long term care, rehabilitation and other health care providers and facilities; medical staff, accreditation, peer review and quality committees and organizations; billing, utilization management, management services organizations, group purchasing organizations; pharmaceutical, pharmacy, and prescription benefit management and organizations; consultants; investors; EHR, claims, payroll and other technology, billing and reimbursement and other services and product vendors; products and solutions consultants and developers; investors; managed care organizations, self-insured health and other employee benefit plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries, administrators and service providers, insurers and other payers, health industry advocacy and other service providers and groups and other health and managed care industry clients as well as federal and state legislative, regulatory, investigatory and enforcement bodies and agencies.  She also has extensive experience dealing with OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, Department of Labor, IRS, HHS, DOD, FTC, SEC, CDC and other public health, Department of Justice and state attorneys’ general and other federal and state agencies; JCHO and other accreditation and quality organizations; private litigation and other federal and state health care industry actions: regulatory and public policy advocacy; training and discipline; enforcement; and other strategic and operational concerns.

Ms. Stamer also provides leadership through her extensive professional, civil and community involvement such as her service as the American Bar Association (ABA) International Section Life Sciences Committee Vice Chair, a Scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) Annual OCR Agency Meeting, current ABA TIPS Medicine and Law Chair-Elect and Vice Chair and former Employee Benefits and Worker’s Compensation Committees Vice Chair, current RPTE Welfare Benefit Committee Co-Chair and former Chairpersonship of its Employee Plans and Executive Compensation Group,  Fiduciary Responsibility, Plan Terminations and Distributions and Defined Contribution Plan Committees, fa former JCEB Council Representative, Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, former SHRM Consultants Board and Region IV Chair, former Texas Association of Business Board, BACPAC Board and Dallas Chapter Chair, former Vice President and Executive Director of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, past Board President of Richardson Development Center (now Warren Center) for Children Early Childhood Intervention Agency, past North Texas United Way Long Range Planning Committee Member, and past Board Member and Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas.

Ms. Stamer also shares her extensive publications and thought leadership as well as leadership involvement in a broad range of other professional and civic organizations. For more information about Ms. Stamer or her health industry and other experience and involvements, see www.cynthiastamer.com or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

Her publications and insights appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications. Her insights on HIPAA risk management and compliance frequently appear in medical privacy related publications of a broad range of health care, health plan and other industry publications.  She also is a highly-sought out speaker on privacy and data security who serves on the planning faculty and speaks for the Association of State & Territorial Health Plans (ASTHO), the Los Angeles Health Department, the American Bar Association, the Health Care Compliance Association, a multitude of health industry, health plan, insurance and financial services, education, employer employee benefit and other clients, trade and professional associations and others.  You can get more information about her HIPAA and other experience here.  If you need assistance with these or other compliance concerns, wish to inquire about arranging for compliance audit or training, or need legal representation on other matters, e-mail Ms. Stamer or call (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 available here.  

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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 and Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ reserve 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 author and Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ disclaim, and have no responsibility to provide any update or otherwise notify anyone 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. Readers acknowledge and agree to the conditions of this Notice as a condition of their access 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.

©2021 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Limited non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.™

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