With New Settlements, OCR Collections From HIPAA Covered Entities For Improperly Allowing Filming Or Other PHI Disclosures To Media Now Exceed $3 Million
$999,0000 is the collective price tag paid by Boston Medical Center (BMC), Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH)(collectively, the “Hospitals”) for putting publicity before patient privacy by allowing ABC News documentary film crews to film patients and access other patient information for a news documentary without obtaining prior patient authorization under three settlement agreements with the Hospitals just announced by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR).
On Thursday, September 20, 2018, OCR announced the three Hospitals collectively have paid a total of $999,000 to settle OCR charges that each Hospital separately violated each violated patients’ Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA) privacy rights by allowing ABC television documentary film crews to observe and film patients and otherwise access to patient’s protected health information (“PHI”) without prior HIPAA-compliant patient authorization. The payments were made under three separate settlement agreements between OCR and each respective Hospital made public by OCR in connection with the September 20, 2018 announcement stemming from the Hospital’s allowing ABC film crews to film in patient treatment and other areas for the ABC medical documentary “Save My Life: Boston Trauma” series.
Considered in conjunction with OCR’s April 16, 2016 announcement of its $2.2 million HIPAA settlement (NY-Presby Settlement) with New York-Presbyterian Hospital for allowing film crews from the “NY Med” television series to film patients and OCR’s concurrently-published 2016 Frequently Asked Question (Media FAQ) addressing Covered Entities’ responsibilities when dealing with the media, the three newly-announced settlement agreements drive home the need for physicians, hospitals and other health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses and their business associates (“Covered Entities”) to protect patients and their PHI against unauthorized filming, photography, observation and other access by news or other media or even other staff, patients or visitors. With OCR now having collected nearly $3 million in settlement proceeds from 4 separate providers for violating these rules, all Covered Entities should review and tighten their current policies, practices and staff training regarding media access and relations, filming and photographing of patients and patient information within their facilities and other HIPAA compliance to reduce the potential that their organizations will fall subject to similar enforcement by OCR.
Media FAQ Highlights Duty To Protect Patients Against Unauthorized Filming, Photography & Other PHI Disclosures By Media, Others
OCR specifically alerted Covered Entities about their responsibility to safeguard patients and their PHI in dealings with the media in the Media FAQ OCR published in connection with its 2016 announcement of its $2.2 million settlement with New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
Among other things, the Media FAQ states that HIPAA prohibits health care providers and other Covered Entities from inviting or allowing media personnel into treatment or other areas where patients or patient PHI will be accessible in written, electronic, oral, or other visual or audio form, or otherwise making PHI accessible to the media without prior written authorization from each patient or other subject of the PHI who is or will be in the area or whose PHI otherwise will be accessible to the media except in a very limited set of circumstances set forth in the Media FAQ.
The Media FAQ also states, “It is not sufficient for a health care provider to request or require media personnel to mask the identities of patients (using techniques such as blurring, pixilation, or voice alteration software) for whom an authorization was not obtained, because the HIPAA Privacy Rule does not allow media access to the patients’ PHI, absent an authorization, in the first place.
In addition, the Media FAQ states that a health care provider also must ensure that reasonable safeguards are in place to protect against impermissible disclosures or to limit incidental disclosures of other PHI that may be in the area but for which an authorization has not been obtained.
Concerning the limited circumstances when a health care provider or other Covered Entity or business associate may disclose to the media or allow unconsented filming, photographing or use of PHI to the media or other film crews, the Media FAQ also clarifies that the HIPAA Privacy Rule does not require health care providers to prevent members of the media from entering areas of their facilities that are otherwise generally accessible to the public like public waiting areas or areas where the public enters or exits the facility.
In addition, the Media FAQ states a health care provider or other Covered Entity may:
- Disclose limited PHI about the incapacitated patient to the media in accordance with the requirements of 45 C.F.R. 164.510(b)(1)(ii) when, in the hospital’s professional judgment, doing so is in the patient’s best interest; or
- Disclose a patient’s location in the facility and condition in general terms that do not communicate specific medical information about the individual to any person, including the media, without obtaining a HIPAA authorization where the individual has not objected to his information being included in the facility directory, and the media representative or other person asks for the individual by name as specified in 45 C.F.R. 164.510(a).
The Media FAQ also discusses circumstances where a healthcare provider or other Covered Entity may use the services of a contract film crew to produce training videos or public relations materials on the provider’s behalf if the provider ensures that the film crew acting as a business associate enters into a HIPAA compliant business associate agreement with the Covered Entity which among other things ensures that the film crew will safeguard the PHI it obtains, only use or disclose the PHI for the purposes provided in the agreement, and return or destroy any PHI after the work for the health care provider has been completed as required by 45 C.F.R. 164.504(e)(2). The Media FAQ also states that as a business associate, the film crew must comply with the HIPAA Security Rule and a number of provisions in the Privacy Rule, including the Rule’s restrictions on the use and disclosure of PHI. In addition, the Media FAQ reminds Covered Entities and business associates of the need to obtain prior authorizations from patients whose PHI is included in any materials before any of those materials are posted online, printed in brochures for the public, or otherwise publicly disseminated.
Finally, the Media FAQ states Covered Entities can continue to inform the media of their treatment services and programs so that the media can better inform the public, provided that, in doing so, the covered entity does not share PHI with the media.
4 High Dollar HIPAA Settlements HIPAA Sanctions Covered Entities Risk By Allowing Improper Media & Other Recording, Use Or Access To PHI
The nearly $3 million in total settlement payments collected under the original 2016 NY-Presby Settlement and three additional settlement agreements announced by OCR on September 20, 2018 collectively make clear that health care providers or other Covered Entities risk substantial sanctions from OCR for allowing television or other media to film or access patients or their PHI without first obtaining a HIPAA-compliant authorization from the patient.
- $2.2 Million NY-Presby Settlement
OCR originally made clear that its intention that other Covered Entities learn from the NY- Presbyterian experience in its April 21, 2016 announcement of the Resolution Agreement. The announcement quoted OCR Director Jocelyn Samuels as stating, “This case sends an important message that OCR will not permit covered entities to compromise their patients’ privacy by allowing news or television crews to film the patients without their authorization.”
Of course, even without then OCR Director Samuel’s warning, the $2.2 million settlement amount OCR required NY-Presbyterian Hospital to pay under the NY-Presby Resolution Agreement alone strongly signaled OCR’s willingness to harshly sanction health care providers and other Covered Entities for putting media coverage before patients.
According to the NY-Presby Resolution Agreement, OCR’s investigation revealed that NY-Presbyterian “blatantly” violated HIPAA when it allowed ABC film crews and staff virtually unfettered access to its health care facility. OCR says the access NY-Presbyterian allowed ABC effectively created an environment where patients PHI could not be protected from impermissible disclosure to the ABC film crew and staff filming the episode. While the Resolution Agreement reflects allowing the filming and other access to ABC without prior HIPAA-compliant authorization from patients in the facility itself violated HIPAA, OCR also particularly found “egregious” the facility allowing ABC film crews and staff to film a dying patient and another patient in significant distress without first obtaining a HIPAA-compliant authorization from each of those patients and even more so that NY-Presbyterian failed stop the filming even after a medical professional urged the crew to stop.
Based on its investigation, OCR charged NY-Presbyterian with violating 45 C.F.R. §§ 164.502(a) and 164.530(c) by:
- Impermissibly disclosing the PHI of two identified patients to the film crew and other staff of “NY Med”; and
- Failing appropriately and reasonably to safeguard its patients’ PHI from disclosure during the filming of “NY Med” on its premises; and
- Failing to implement policies, procedures and practices to protect the privacy of its filming of aforementioned television show.
- BMC Settlement Agreement
The circumstances that resulted in the three resolution agreements announced on September 20, 2018 are strikingly similar to those underlying the NY-Presby Resolution Agreement. Notably, the investigations that resulted in the three settlement agreements all arose out of the respective Hospital’s permitting an ABC documentary film crew filming a medical documentary to access patient areas of their hospitals. OCR’s investigation of MGH arose in response to an announcement about the impending filming on its website while OCR’s investigations of BMC and BWH started in response to a January 12, 2015 Boston Globe article that reported the Hospitals each separately had allowed ABC film crews filming a documentary to access PHI and film patients without obtaining patient authorization. See Boston Medical Center Resolution Agreement (BMC Settlement Agreement); Brigham and Women’s Hospital Resolution Agreement (BWH Settlement Agreement); and Massachusetts General Hospital Resolution Agreement (MGH Resolution Agreement)
The MGH Resolution Agreement reflects that OCR’s investigations began with an investigation of MGH on December 17, 2014 based on a news story posted to MGH’s website on October 3, 2014, indicating that ABC News would be filming a medical documentary program at MGH. The MGH Resolution Reports that the investigation revealed that before allowing the filming between October 2014 to January 2015, MGH reviewed and assessed patient privacy issues related to the filming and implemented various protections regarding patient privacy, including providing the ABC film crew with the same HIPAA privacy training received by MGH’s workforce.
Information contained in the respective settlement agreements reflect that OCR’s investigations of BMC and BWH began about a month later on January 25 and 26, 2015 respectively in response to the Boston Globe article. The BWH Settlement Agreement states that the BWH investigation revealed that like MGH, BWH reviewed and assessed patient privacy issues related to the filming and implemented various protections regarding patient privacy, including providing the ABC film crew with the same HIPAA privacy training received by BWH’s workforce before allowing the filming by the ABC film crew that occurred between October 2014 to January 2015. The BMC Settlement Agreement does not state that OCR found BMC engaged in similar deliberations or undertook the same or other efforts to safeguard patients and their PHI.
The BMC Settlement Agreement reports that the OCR concluded based on the BMC investigation showed that BMC impermissibly disclosed PHI of patients to ABC employees during the production and filming of a television program at BMC in violation of HIPAA. Meanwhile, while acknowledging the privacy deliberations and efforts undertaken at MGH and BWH, OCR also concluded that each of those organizations also violated HIPAA because in allowing the film crew access and to film patients and patient areas:
- The timing at which they obtained patient authorizations showed MGH and BWH impermissibly disclosed the PHI of patients to ABC employees during the production and filming of a television program at BWH; and
- Despite the various patient privacy protections that were put in place, MGH and BWH failed to appropriately and reasonably safeguard its patients’ PHI from disclosure during a filming project conducted by ABC on its premises in 2014 and January 2015.
To resolve potential HIPAA violations, BMC has paid OCR $100,000, BWH has paid OCR $384,000, and MGH has paid OCR $515,000. In addition, each Hospital agreed to provide workforce training as part of a corrective action plan that will include OCR’s guidance on disclosures to film and media in the 2016 Media FAQ.
OCR To Covered Entities: Prevent Unauthorized Filming, Photography & PHI Access & Disclosures To Media, Other Third Parties
Given the clear warnings communicated by OCR in its Media FAQ and September 20, 2018 and NY-Presby Settlements, all Covered Entities should take steps to verify that their current policies, practices and training are appropriately designed and administered to ensure their ability to demonstrate compliance with OCR’s interpretation of the Privacy Rule as prohibiting health care providers or other Covered Entities from allowing film or media to film, photograph or even access areas where patients or their PHI are accessible or otherwise disclosing PHI to members of the media without first obtaining a HIPAA-compliant authorization from each patient whose presence or PHI could be observed, recorded or otherwise accessed.
When considering the adequacy of their current policies, practices and training concerning filming, photography and other access and disclosure to patients, patient treatment areas and other PHI, Covered Entities should resist the temptation to read the Media FAQ and media settlement agreements as relevant only to their policies concerning filming, photography and PHI access by members of the media. In this respect, it bears noting that the NY-Presby Settlement expressly required NY-Presbyterian as part of its required corrective action to adopt and enforce policies requiring that “all photography, video recording and audio recording conducted on NY-Presbyterian premises” be reviewed, preapproved and actively monitored by appropriate NY-Presbyterian representatives for compliance with the Privacy Rule and NY-Presbyterian’s policies. This requirement to adopt and administer appropriate safeguards to control filming or photography and other access to patients and their PHI generally, rather than just by the media, reflects a recognition by OCR that HIIPAA’s requirement that Covered Entities secure prior HIPAA-compliant authorization before allowing others to access or disclosing PHI to others applies to access or disclosure to “any third party not involved in patient care,” not merely those to media or film crews. Consequently, Covered Entities also should consider the implications of the guidance shared in the Media FAQ and media settlement agreements on the adequacy and defensibility of their current policies, practices and training about filming, photographing, or other access or disclosure to patients, patient treatment areas and PHI by any party within their facilities and organizations.
When evaluating these responsibilities and risks, Covered Entities are encouraged not only to take into account potential risks from filming, photographs or other access to patients or patient treatment or recordkeeping areas by third-parties unaffiliated with their organizations as well as filming, photographs and other access by staff, employees or business associates within their facilities. Covered Entities should take steps to monitor and properly restrict and protect any filming, photography or other observations, records or other access to patients or their information by individuals within their workforce, as well as to regulate the access and activities of unrelated third parties. In this respect, Covered Entities are cautioned about the need to prohibit and enforce restrictions against members of their workforce using their own personal devices or other equipment to film, photograph, and copy or disseminate photographs, film, recordings or other records or data that qualifies as or contains PHI without authorization in accordance with established protocols. Covered Entities should ensure that their policies and training make clear that these prohibitions apply whether or not the workforce member believes that identity of the patient or patient information is concealed or otherwise not discoverable. Moreover, even with respect to photographs, films or other recordings or records legitimately created for treatment, payment or operations purposes, Covered Entities generally need to take steps to restrict use, access and disclosure of the photographs or other recordings to individuals legitimately involved in patient treatment, operations, payment or other activities allowed by the Privacy Rule and to safeguard those materials against use, access or disclosure to others within or outside their workforce except as allowed by HIPAA and other applicable law. .
As part of these activities, Covered Entities should consider conducting a well-documented assessment of their current policies, practices and workforce training on allowing media or other parties to enter, film, photograph or record within their facilities or otherwise disclosing or allowing media access to their facilities as well as their policies about when parties not involved in care of a particular patient can film, photograph, or otherwise record, observe or access areas where patients or patient PHI is or might be present without prior written consent of the patient.
Since Covered Entities also are likely to be subject to other statutory, ethical, contractual or other privacy or confidentiality requirements beyond those imposed by the Privacy Rule, most Covered Entities also will want to consider and take steps to identify and address other potential legal or ethical responsibilities such as medical confidentiality duties applicable to physicians and other health care providers under medical ethics, professional licensure or other similar rules, contractual responsibilities, as well as common law privacy or other related exposures when conducting this review. Additionally, most Covered Entities also will want to take into account and manage their potential exposure to privacy, theft of likeness or other intellectual property, or other statutory or common law tort or contractual claims that might attached to the unauthorized filming, photographing, or surveillance of individuals under federal or state common or statutory laws.
Since this analysis and review in most cases will result in the uncovering or discussion of potentially legally or politically sensitive information, Covered Entities should consider consulting with or engaging experienced legal counsel for assistance in structuring and executing these activities to maximize their ability to claim attorney-client privilege or other evidentiary protections against discovery or disclosure of certain aspects of these activities.
Finally, Covered Entities should keep in mind that HIPAA compliance and risk management is an ongoing process requiring constant awareness and diligence. Consequently, Covered Entities should both monitor OCR and other regulatory and enforcement developments as well as exercise ongoing vigilance to monitor and maintain compliance within their organizations.
About The Author
A practicing attorney and Managing Shareholder of Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer’s more than 30 years’ of leading edge work as an practicing attorney, author, lecturer and industry and policy thought leader have resulted in her recognition as a “Top” attorney in employee benefits, labor and employment and health care law.
Board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, Scribe for the American Bar Association (ABA) Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) Annual Agency Meeting with the Office of Civil Rights and a former JCEB Council Representative; former Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group; and past Chair, former Welfare Benefit Committee Co-Chair and current Fiduciary Responsibility Committee Co-Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, former Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee, Ms. Stamer is recognized nationally and internationally for her practical and creative insights and leadership on HIPAA and other health care, managed care and insurance, and other employee benefit, human resources, and related antitrust, corporate, privacy and data security, tax and other internal controls, regulatory affairs and public policy concerns.
Ms. Stamer’s legal and management consulting work throughout her career has focused on helping organizations and their management use the law and process to manage people, process, compliance, operations and risk. Highly valued for her rare ability to find pragmatic client-centric solutions by combining her detailed legal and operational knowledge and experience with her talent for creative problem-solving, Ms. Stamer helps public and private, domestic and international health, insurance and financial security, and other businesses, governments, and other organizations and their leaders manage their employees, vendors and suppliers, and other workforce members, customers and other’ performance, compliance, compensation and benefits, operations, risks and liabilities, as well as to prevent, stabilize and cleanup legal and operational crises large and small that arise in the course of operations.
In this respect, Ms. Stamer works with businesses and their management, employee benefit plans, governments and other organizations deal with all aspects of human resources and workforce, regulatory compliance and operational and performance management. She supports her clients both on a real time, “on demand” basis and with longer term basis to deal with daily performance management and operations, emerging crises, strategic planning, process improvement and change management, investigations, defending litigation, audits, investigations or other enforcement challenges, government affairs and public policy.
Well known for her extensive work with health care, insurance and other highly regulated entities on corporate compliance, internal controls and risk management, her clients range from highly regulated entities like employers, contractors and their employee benefit plans, their sponsors, management, administrators, insurers, fiduciaries and advisors, technology and data service providers, health care, managed care and insurance, financial services, government contractors and government entities, as well as retail, manufacturing, construction, consulting and a host of other domestic and international businesses of all types and sizes.
As a key part of this work, Ms. Stamer uses her deep and highly specialized health, insurance, labor and employment and other knowledge and experience to help health industry, insurance and financial services and other employers and other employee benefit plan sponsors; health, pension and other employee benefit plans, their fiduciaries, administrators and service providers, insurers, and others design legally compliant, effective compliance and internal controls, risk management, human resources and other workforce performance, discipline, compensation, employee benefits and related programs, products and arrangements.
In the course of this work, Ms. Stamer has accumulated an impressive resume of experience advising and representing clients on HIPAA and other privacy and data security concerns. The scribe for the American Bar Association (ABA) Joint Committee on Employee Benefits annual agency meeting with the Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights for several years, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively with health plans, health care providers, health care clearinghouses, their business associates, employer and other sponsors, banks and other financial institutions, and others on risk management and compliance with HIPAA and other information privacy and data security rules, investigating and responding to known or suspected breaches, defending investigations or other actions by plaintiffs, OCR and other federal or state agencies, reporting known or suspected violations, business associate and other contracting, commenting or obtaining other clarification of guidance, training and enforcement, and a host of other related concerns. Her clients include public and private health plans, health insurers, health care providers, banking, technology and other vendors, and others. Beyond advising these and other clients on privacy and data security compliance, risk management, investigations and data breach response and remediation, Ms. Stamer also advises and represents clients on OCR and other HHS, Department of Labor, IRS, FTC, DOD and other health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns. She also is the author of numerous highly acclaimed publications, workshops and tools for HIPAA or other compliance including training programs on Privacy & The Pandemic for the Association of State & Territorial Health Plans, as well as HIPAA, FACTA, PCI, medical confidentiality, insurance confidentiality and other privacy and data security compliance and risk management for Los Angeles County Health Department, ISSA, HIMMS, the ABA, SHRM, schools, medical societies, government and private health care and health plan organizations, their business associates, trade associations and others.
Ms. Stamer also is deeply involved in helping to influence the health care, workforce, insurance and financial services, employee benefit, privacy and data security and other federal, state and local laws, regulations and enforcement actions. She both helps her clients respond to and resolve emerging regulations and laws, government investigations and enforcement actions and helps them shape the rules through dealings with Congress and other legislatures, regulators and government officials domestically and internationally. A former lead consultant to the Government of Bolivia on its Social Security reform law and most recognized for her leadership on U.S. health and pension, wage and hour, tax, education and immigration policy reform, Ms. Stamer works with U.S. and foreign businesses, governments, trade associations, and others on workforce, social security and severance, health care, immigration, privacy and data security, tax, ethics and other laws and regulations. Founder and Executive Director of the Coalition for Responsible Healthcare Policy and its PROJECT COPE: the Coalition on Patient Empowerment and a Fellow in the American Bar Foundation and State Bar of Texas. She also works as a policy advisor and advocate to health, insurance and financial services, employee benefits and other business, professional and civic organizations.
Author of the thousands of publications and workshops these and other employment, employee benefits, health care, insurance, workforce and other management matters, Ms. Stamer also is a highly sought out speaker and industry thought leader known for empowering audiences and readers. Ms. Stamer’s insights on employee benefits, insurance, health care and workforce matters in Atlantic Information Services, The Bureau of National Affairs (BNA), InsuranceThoughtLeaders.com, Benefits Magazine, Employee Benefit News, Texas CEO Magazine, HealthLeaders, Modern Healthcare, 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 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. Ms. Stamer also regularly serves on the faculty and planning committees for symposia of LexisNexis, the American Bar Association, ALIABA, the Society of Employee Benefits Administrators, the American Law Institute, ISSA, HIMMs, and many other prominent educational and training organizations and conducts training and speaks on these and other management, compliance and public policy concerns.
Ms. Stamer also has a lifelong history of involvement with and service with a diverse range of professional, community and charitable organizations and causes including as founder and Executive Director of the Coalition for Responsible Health Care Policy and its PROJECT COPE: Coalition for Patient Empowerment; technical advisor to the National Physicians’ Council for Health Care Policy; a founding Board Member and President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence and its Patient Empowerment and Health Care Heroes Projects; a Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; the Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children; a member of the Dallas United Way Long Range Planning Committee; as well as leadership involvement in the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council, the North Texas Healthcare Compliance Professionals Association; the ABA RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee, the ABA Health Law Section, the ABA International Section Life Sciences Committee, and the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Committee; TEGE Coordinator of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division; Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee; a member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Benefits Association; Dallas, Regional and State BACPAC Chair of the Texas Association of Business; SHRM Regional Chair and National Advisory Board Chair; WEB Network of Benefits Professionals National and Dallas Boards; as a contributing author and the Advisory Board member of the BNA EBCD CD, InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com, HR.com, Employee Benefit News, and many other publications and as chair or planning faculty of a multitude of symposia.. For additional information about Ms. Stamer, see www.cynthiastamer.com, or contact Ms. Stamer via email here or via telephone to (214) 452.8297.
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