Medical Clinic HIPAA Resolution Agreement Shows Need For Current Business Associate Agreements

April 24, 2017

Health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses and business associates must get and keep their business associate (BA) agreements (BAAs) in place, up- to-date, and readily available for inspection in accordance with the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule, 45 C.F.R. Part 160 and Subparts A and E of Part 164 (Privacy Rule).  That’s the clear message physician practices and other health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses (“covered entities”) and their business associates should learn about Privacy Rule compliance from an April 17, 2017 HIPAA Resolution Agreement just announced by the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) with the Center for Children’s Digestive Health (CCDH).

While the Resolution Agreement relates to breaches of the BAA requirements of a small pediatric practice, the  Center for Children’s Digestive Health (CCDH), all health plans, health care providers and other covered entities and business associates should focus on the adequacy of their BAAs  and their BAA recordkeeping.  HIPAA compliance surveys reflect deficiencies with the BAA rules are common throughout the industry.  These findings and the involvement of BAs in data breaches or other OCR enforcement activities suggest a high probability that many other covered entities and business associates may be sitting ducks for similar sanctions.  See e.g., HIPAA Compliance Survey Churns Up Many Business Associate Problems (January 3, 2017).

The HIPAA Business Associate Agreement Requirements

OCR’s announcement of the CCDH Resolution Agreement is the latest in a growing series of HIPAA enforcement actions showing the growing risk covered entities and their business associates face for failing to take appropriate steps to comply with the BAA and other Privacy Rule requirements of HIPAA.

As compliance audits and surveys of covered entities and business associates suggest a high level of noncompliance with the business associate agreement requirements among covered entities and business associates, While the ever-growing list of Resolution Agreements and Civil Monetary Penalties announced by OCR cover a variety of categories of HIPAA violations, the CCDH Resolution Agreement highlights the importance of covered entities and their business associates ensuring that before the BA creates, accesses, receives, discloses, retains or destroys any PHI for the covered entity,  a BAA meeting the Privacy Rule requirements is signed and retained for at least the six year period the Privacy Rule requires in a manner easily producible when and if OCR or another agency asks for a copy as part of an investigation or other compliance audit.  See Privacy Rule §§ 164.502(e), 164.504(e), 164.532(d) and (e).

The Privacy Rule requires that covered entities and business associates 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. Meanwhile, the Privacy Rule recordkeeping requirements require that covered entities and BAs maintain copies of these BAAs for a minimum of six years.

Violations of the Privacy Rule can carry stiff civil 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).

Under Section 1177, 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.

In contrast, 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.

While criminal enforcement of HIPAA remains relatively rare, a review of the OCR enforcement record in recent years makes clear that civil enforcement of HIPAA and the sanctions imposed is growing. See e.g.,  $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.

CCDH Sanctions For Violation Of HIPAA Business Associate Agreement Rules

The CCDH Resolution Agreement arises from violations of this requirement that OCR says it discovered as a result of a compliance review conducted in response to an OCR investigation of a CCDH business associate, FileFax, Inc.  According to OCR, OCR found from the compliance review of CCDH triggered by OCR’s investigation of FileFax that while CCDH began disclosing PHI to Filefax in 2003 and that Filefax stored records containing protected health information (PHI) for CCDH, neither CCDH nor Filefax could produce a signed Business Associate Agreement (BAA) covering their relationship for any period before October 12, 2015.

Based on the resulting investigation,  OCR concluded:

  • CCDH failed to obtain a BAA providing written assurances from Filefax that it would appropriately safeguard the PHI in Filefax’s possession or control satisfactory assurances as required by Privacy Rule §164.502(e); and
  • Because CCDH failed to secure the required BAA, it violated the Privacy Rule by impermissibly disclosing the PHI of at least 10,728 individuals to Filefax when CCDH transferred the PHI to Filefax without obtaining the requisite BAA from Filefax (Covered Conduct).

In the Resolution Agreement, CCDH agrees to pay HHS $31,000.00 (Resolution Amount) and enter into and comply with a Corrective Action Plan (CAP) in return for OCR’s release of CCDH from liability for “any actions it may have against CCDH under the HIPAA Rules” for the Covered Conduct.  The Resolution Agreement only settles the civil monetary penalty and other OCR enforcement liabilities of CCDH with respect to the Covered Conduct.  Its provisions expressly state the Resolution Agreement does not affect any exposures of CCDH to CCDH to OCR civil monetary penalties or other enforcement for any HIPAA violations other than the Covered Conduct.

Perhaps even more noteworthy given the HITECH Act’s provisions coordinating the civil and criminal sanctions of HIPAA, while  the Resolution Agreement provides no clear indication that the Justice Department might be considering criminally prosecuting CCDH or any other party in relation to the Covered Conduct, the Resolution Agreement also expressly states that its provisions do not affect CCDH’s potential exposure, if any, to criminal prosecution by the Justice Department for a criminal violation of the Privacy Rules under Section 1177 of the Social Security Act.

Implications For Covered Entities & Business Associates

Covered entities and their business associates should heed the CCDH Resolution Agreement as a strong message from OCR to ensure their organizations are complying with HIPAA’s BAA and other requirements.  The Resolution Agreement makes clear that the starting point of this compliance effort must be obtaining and maintaining the requisite BAAs for each BA relationship.

To position their organizations to withstand potential investigation by OCR, covered entities and BAs should start by conducting a well-documented audit within the scope of attorney-client privilege both to verify that an appropriate, signed BAA is in place for each BA relationship as well as adequacy of processes for identifying business associate relationships, ensuring that signed BAAs are in effect before BAs access any PHI, and for investigating, reporting and resolving any breaches of the HIPAA Privacy or Security Rules that may arise in the course of operations.

Conducting this audit as soon as possible is particularly important in light of reported findings of widespread compliance concerns. See HIPAA Compliance Survey Churns Up Many Business Associate Problems (January 3, 2017).  As the audit process could identify potential violations or other legally sensitive concerns,  covered entities and business associates generally will want to arrange for this audit and evaluation to be conducted under the supervision of legal counsel experienced with HIPAA within or pursuant to processes structured with the assistance of legal counsel within the scope of attorney-client privilege.

Beyond confirming all necessary BAAs are in place, covered entities and business associates also generally will want to evaluate the adequacy of BAs’ processes and procedures for maintaining compliance with the Privacy and Security Rules as well as processes and procedures for responding to audits, investigations and complaints, reporting and addressing breaches of electronic and other PHI and other possible compliance concerns under HIPAA and other related laws.  In many instances, parties may n wish to revise and strengthen existing BAAs to more specifically define these policies and procedures more specifically as well as indemnification, cyber or other liability coverage requirements and other contractual provisions for allocating potential costs and liabilities arising from breaches, audits, investigations and other expenses associated with the administration of these provisions.

About The Author

Recognized by LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as a “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%/ the highest) and “Top Rated Lawyer,” with special recognition 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 “Health Care,” “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: Erisa & Employee Benefits” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, the author of this update is widely known for her 29 plus years’ of work in health care, health benefit, health policy and regulatory affairs and other health industry concerns as a practicing attorney and management consultant, thought leader, author, public policy advocate and lecturer.

Throughout her adult life and nearly 30-year legal career, Ms. Stamer’s legal, management and governmental affairs work has focused on helping health industry, health benefit and other organizations and their management use the law, performance and risk management tools and process to manage people, performance, quality, 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 supports these organizations and their leaders on both a real-time, “on demand” basis as well as outsourced operations or special counsel on an interim, special project, or ongoing basis with strategic planning and product and services development and innovation; workforce and operations management, crisis preparedness and response as well as to prevent, stabilize and cleanup legal and operational crises large and small that arise in the course of operations.

As a core component of her work, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively throughout her career with health care providers, health plans and insurers, managed care organizations, health care clearinghouses, their business associates, employers, banks and other financial institutions, management services organizations, professional associations, medical staffs, accreditation agencies, auditors, technology and other vendors and service providers, and others on legal and operational compliance, risk management and compliance, public policies and regulatory affairs, contracting, payer-provider, provider-provider, vendor, patient, governmental and community relations and matters including extensive involvement advising, representing and defending public and private hospitals and health care systems; physicians, physician organizations and medical staffs; specialty clinics and pharmacies; skilled nursing, home health, rehabilitation and other health care providers and facilities; medical staff, accreditation, peer review and quality committees and organizations; billing and management services organizations; consultants; investors; technology, billing and reimbursement and other services and product vendors; products and solutions consultants and developers; investors; managed care organizations, insurers, self-insured health plans and other payers; and other health industry clients to manage and defend compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing and other operations and risk management concerns. A core focus of this work includes work to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; comply with requirements, investigate and respond to Board of Medicine, Health, Nursing, Pharmacy, Chiropractic, and other licensing agencies, Department of Aging & Disability, FDA, Drug Enforcement Agency, 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; dealings with JCHO and other accreditation and quality organizations; investigation and defense of private litigation and other federal and state health care industry investigations and enforcement; insurance or other liability management and allocation; process and product development; managed care, physician and other staffing, business associate and other contracting; evaluation, commenting or seeking modification of regulatory guidance, and other regulatory and public policy advocacy; training and discipline; and a host of other related concerns for public and private health care providers, health insurers, health plans, technology and other vendors, employers, and others.

In the course of this work, Ms. Stamer has accumulated extensive experience helping health industry clients manage workforce, medical staff, vendors and suppliers, medical billing, reimbursement, claims and other provider-payer relations, business partners, and their recruitment, performance, discipline, compliance, safety, compensation, benefits, and training, board, medical staff and other governance; compliance and internal controls; strategic planning, process and quality improvement; change management; assess, deter, investigate and address staffing, quality, compliance and other performance; meaningful use, EMR, HIPAA and other data security and breach and other health IT and data; crisis preparedness and response; internal, government and third-party reporting, audits, investigations and enforcement; government affairs and public policy; and other compliance and risk management, government and regulatory affairs and operations concerns.

Author of leading works on HIPAA and other privacy and data security works and the scribe leading the American Bar Association Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Annual Agency Meeting with OCR, her experience includes extensive compliance, risk management and data breach and other crisis event investigation, response and remediation under HIPAA and other laws.

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, former Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, past ABA JCEB Council Representative, 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 has worked closely with a diverse range of physicians, hospitals and healthcare systems, DME, Pharma, clinics, health care providers, managed care, insurance and other health care payers, quality assurance, credentialing, technical, research, public and private social and community organizations, and other health industry organizations and their management deal with governance; credentialing, patient relations and care; staffing, peer review, human resources and workforce performance management; outsourcing; internal controls and regulatory compliance; billing and reimbursement; physician, employment, vendor, managed care, government and other contracting; business transactions; grants; tax-exemption and not-for-profit; licensure and accreditation; vendor selection and management; privacy and data security; training; risk and change management; regulatory affairs and public policy and other concerns.

Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also has extensive health care reimbursement and insurance experience advising and defending health care providers, payers, and others about Medicare, Medicaid, Medicare and Medicaid Advantage, Tri-Care, self-insured group, association, individual and group and other health benefit programs and coverages including but not limited to advising public and private payers about coverage and program design and documentation, advising and defending providers, payers and systems and billing services entities about systems and process design, audits, and other processes; provider credentialing, and contracting; providers and payer billing, reimbursement, claims audits, denials and appeals, coverage coordination, reporting, direct contracting, False Claims Act, Medicare & Medicaid, ERISA, state Prompt Pay, out-of-network and other nonpar, insured, and other health care claims, prepayment, post-payment and other coverage, claims denials, appeals, billing and fraud investigations and actions and other reimbursement and payment related investigation, enforcement, litigation and actions.

Heavily involved in health care and health information technology, data and related process and systems development, policy and operations innovation and a Scribe for ABA JCEB annual agency meeting with OCR for many years who has authored numerous highly-regarded works and training programs on HIPAA and other data security, privacy and use, Ms. Stamer also is widely recognized for her extensive work and leadership on leading edge health care and benefit policy and operational issues including meaningful use and EMR, billing and reimbursement, quality measurement and reimbursement, HIPAA, FACTA, PCI, trade secret, physician and other medical confidentiality and privacy, federal and state data security and data breach and other information privacy and data security rules and many other concerns.

In connection with this work, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively with health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses, their business associates, employers and other plan sponsors, banks and other financial institutions, and others on risk management and compliance with HIPAA, FACTA, trade secret and other information privacy and data security rules, including the establishment, documentation, implementation, audit and enforcement of policies, procedures, systems and safeguards, 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 and enforcement, and a host of other related concerns. Her clients include public and private health care providers, health insurers, health plans, technology and other vendors, and others.

Her work includes both regulatory and public policy advocacy and thought leadership, as well as advising and representing a broad range of health industry and other clients about policy design, drafting, administration, business associate and other contracting, risk assessments, audits and other risk prevention and mitigation, investigation, reporting, mitigation and resolution of known or suspected violations or other incidents and responding to and defending investigations or other actions by plaintiffs, DOJ, OCR, FTC, state attorneys’ general and other federal or state agencies, other business partners, patients and others.

In addition to representing and advising these organizations, she also has conducted training 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, MGMA, ISSA, HIMMS, the ABA, SHRM, schools, medical societies, government and private health care and health plan organizations, their business associates, trade associations and others.

A former lead consultant to the Government of Bolivia on its Pension Privatization Project with extensive domestic and international public policy concerns in Pensions, healthcare, workforce, immigration, tax, education and other areas.

A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, privacy and data security, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares her thought leadership, experience and advocacy on these and other related concerns by her service in the leadership of the Solutions Law Press, Inc. Coalition for Responsible Health Policy, its PROJECT COPE: Coalition on Patient Empowerment, and a broad range of other professional and civic organizations including North Texas Healthcare Compliance Association, a founding Board Member and past President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence, past Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; former Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children (now Warren Center For Children); current Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee, current Vice Chair of Policy for the Life Sciences Committee of the ABA International Section, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, a current Defined Contribution Plan Committee Co-Chair, former Group Chair and Co-Chair of the ABA RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, past Representative and chair of various committees of ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits; a ABA Health Law Coordinating Council representative, former Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division, past Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee, a former member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Benefits Association and others.

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

For more information about Ms. Stamer or her health industry and other experience and involvements, see here or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (469) 767-8872 or via e-mail here.

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.

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©2017 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ All other rights reserved. For information about republication or other use, please contact Ms. Stamer here.


$400K HIPAA Settlement Shows Need To Conduct Timely & Appropriate Risk Assessments

April 12, 2017

Metro Community Provider Network (MCPN), a federally-qualified health center (FQHC), must pay $400,000 and implement a corrective action plan to resolve U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights (OCR) charges it violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Security Rule by failing to implement  a security management process to safeguard electronic protected health information (ePHI).  The settlement is the latest reminder to health providers, payers and their business associates to conduct timely risk assessments, implement needed security and otherwise manage HIPAA compliance.

The Resolution Agreement and Corrective Action Plan, like most others before it, resulted from an investigation opened in response to a breach report.  On January 27, 2012, MCPN filed a breach report with OCR indicating that a hacker accessed employees’ email accounts and obtained 3,200 individuals’ ePHI through a phishing incident. OCR’s investigation revealed that MCPN took necessary corrective action related to the phishing incident.  However, the investigation also revealed that MCPN failed to conduct a risk analysis until mid-February 2012 – well after the hacking incident reported in the breach report.

Prior to the breach incident, MCPN had not conducted a risk analysis to assess the risks and vulnerabilities in its ePHI environment, and, consequently, had not implemented any corresponding risk management plans to address the risks and vulnerabilities identified in a risk analysis. 

When MCPN finally conducted a risk analysis, OCR found that risk analysis, as well as all subsequent risk analyses, were insufficient to meet the requirements of the Security Rule.

OCR made a point in announcing the Resolution Agreement of noting it considered MCPN’s status as a FQHC when balancing the significance of the violation with MCPN’s ability to maintain sufficient financial standing to ensure the provision of ongoing patient care. MCPN provides primary medical care, dental care, pharmacies, social work, and behavioral health care services throughout the greater Denver, Colorado metropolitan area to approximately 43,000 patients per year, a large majority of whom have incomes at or below the poverty level.  It is likely that OCR would have imposed a much greater settlement amount had the covered entity not been a FQHC serving the poor.

About The Author

Recognized by LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as a “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%/ the highest) and “Top Rated Lawyer,” with special recognition 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 “Health Care,” “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: Erisa & Employee Benefits” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, the author of this update is widely known for her 29 plus years’ of work in health care, health benefit, health policy and regulatory affairs and other health industry concerns as a practicing attorney and management consultant, thought leader, author, public policy advocate and lecturer.

Throughout her adult life and nearly 30-year legal career, Ms. Stamer’s legal, management and governmental affairs work has focused on helping health industry, health benefit and other organizations and their management use the law, performance and risk management tools and process to manage people, performance, quality, 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 supports these organizations and their leaders on both a real-time, “on demand” basis as well as outsourced operations or special counsel on an interim, special project, or ongoing basis with strategic planning and product and services development and innovation; workforce and operations management, crisis preparedness and response as well as to prevent, stabilize and cleanup legal and operational crises large and small that arise in the course of operations. 

Throughout her career, she has  helped health industry clients manage workforce, medical staff, vendors and suppliers, medical billing, reimbursement, claims and other provider-payer relations, business partners, and their recruitment, performance, discipline, compliance, safety, compensation, benefits, and training ;board, medical staff and other governance; compliance and internal controls; strategic planning, process and quality improvement; change management; assess, deter, investigate and address staffing, quality, compliance and other performance; meaningful use, EMR, HIPAA and other data security and breach and other health IT and data; crisis preparedness and response; internal, government and third-party reporting, audits, investigations and enforcement; government affairs and public policy; and other compliance and risk management, government and regulatory affairs and operations concerns.

Author of leading works on HIPAA and other privacy and data security works and the scribe leading the American Bar Association Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Annual Agency Meeting with OCR, her experience includes extensive compliance, risk management and data breach and other crisis event investigation, response and remediation under HIPAA and other laws.  

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, former Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, past ABA JCEB Council Representative, 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 has worked closely with a diverse range of physicians, hospitals and healthcare systems, DME, Pharma, clinics, health care providers, managed care, insurance and other health care payers, quality assurance, credentialing, technical, research, public and private social and community organizations, and other health industry organizations and their management deal with governance; credentialing, patient relations and care; staffing, peer review, human resources and workforce performance management; outsourcing; internal controls and regulatory compliance; billing and reimbursement; physician, employment, vendor, managed care, government and other contracting; business transactions; grants; tax-exemption and not-for-profit; licensure and accreditation; vendor selection and management; privacy and data security; training; risk and change management; regulatory affairs and public policy and other concerns.
As a core component of her work, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively throughout her career with health care providers, health plans and insurers, managed care organizations, health care clearinghouses, their business associates, employers, banks and other financial institutions, management services organizations, professional associations, medical staffs, accreditation agencies, auditors, technology and other vendors and service providers, and others on legal and operational compliance, risk management and compliance, public policies and regulatory affairs, contracting, payer-provider, provider-provider, vendor, patient, governmental and community relations and matters including extensive involvement advising, representing and defending public and private hospitals and health care systems; physicians, physician organizations and medical staffs; specialty clinics and pharmacies; skilled nursing, home health, rehabilitation and other health care providers and facilities; medical staff, accreditation, peer review and quality committees and organizations; billing and management services organizations; consultants; investors; technology, billing and reimbursement and other services and product vendors; products and solutions consultants and developers; investors; managed care organizations, insurers, self-insured health plans and other payers; and other health industry clients to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; comply with requirements, investigate and respond to Board of Medicine, Health, Nursing, Pharmacy, Chiropractic, and other licensing agencies, Department of Aging & Disability, FDA, Drug Enforcement Agency, 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 investigation, enforcement including insurance or other liability management and allocation; process and product development, contracting, deployment and defense; evaluation, commenting or seeking modification of regulatory guidance, and other regulatory and public policy advocacy; training and discipline; enforcement, and a host of other related concerns for public and private health care providers, health insurers, health plans, technology and other vendors, employers, and others.and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns.
Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also has extensive health care reimbursement and insurance experience advising and defending health care providers, payers, and others about Medicare, Medicaid, Medicare and Medicaid Advantage, Tri-Care, self-insured group, association, individual and group and other health benefit programs and coverages including but not limited to advising public and private payers about coverage and program design and documentation, advising and defending providers, payers and systems and billing services entities about systems and process design, audits, and other processes; provider credentialing, and contracting; providers and payer billing, reimbursement, claims audits, denials and appeals, coverage coordination, reporting, direct contracting, False Claims Act, Medicare & Medicaid, ERISA, state Prompt Pay, out-of-network and other nonpar insured, and other health care claims, prepayment, post-payment and other coverage, claims denials, appeals, billing and fraud investigations and actions and other reimbursement and payment related investigation, enforcement, litigation and actions.

Heavily involved in health care and health information technology, data and related process and systems development, policy and operations innovation and a Scribe for ABA JCEB annual agency meeting with OCR for many years who has authored numerous highly-regarded works and training programs on HIPAA and other data security, privacy and use, Ms. Stamer also is widely recognized for her extensive work and leadership on leading edge health care and benefit policy and operational issues including meaningful use and EMR, billing and reimbursement, quality measurement and reimbursement, HIPAA, FACTA, PCI, trade secret, physician and other medical confidentiality and privacy, federal and state data security and data breach and other information privacy and data security rules and many other concerns. Her work includes both regulatory and public policy advocacy and thought leadership, as well as advising and representing a broad range of health industry and other clients about policy design, drafting, administration, business associate and other contracting, risk assessments, audits and other risk prevention and mitigation, investigation, reporting, mitigation and resolution of known or suspected violations or other incidents and responding to and defending investigations or other actions by plaintiffs, DOJ, OCR, FTC, state attorneys’ general and other federal or state agencies, other business partners, patients and others.

Ms. Stamer has worked extensively with health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses, their business associates, employers and other plan sponsors, banks and other financial institutions, and others on risk management and compliance with HIPAA, FACTA, trade secret and other information privacy and data security rules, including the establishment, documentation, implementation, audit and enforcement of policies, procedures, systems and safeguards, 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 and enforcement, and a host of other related concerns. Her clients include public and private health care providers, health insurers, health plans, technology and other vendors, and others. In addition to representing and advising these organizations, she also has conducted training 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, MGMA, ISSA, HIMMS, the ABA, SHRM, schools, medical societies, government and private health care and health plan organizations, their business associates, trade associations and others.

A former lead consultant to the Government of Bolivia on its Pension Privatization Project with extensive domestic and international public policy concerns in Pensions, healthcare, workforce, immigration, tax, education and other areas.

A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, privacy and data security, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares her thought leadership, experience and advocacy on these and other related concerns by her service in the leadership of the Solutions Law Press, Inc. Coalition for Responsible Health Policy, its PROJECT COPE: Coalition on Patient Empowerment, and a broad range of other professional and civic organizations including North Texas Healthcare Compliance Association, a founding Board Member and past President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence, past Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; former Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children (now Warren Center For Children); current Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee, current Vice Chair of Policy for the Life Sciences Committee of the ABA International Section, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, a current Defined Contribution Plan Committee Co-Chair, former Group Chair and Co-Chair of the ABA RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, past Representative and chair of various committees of ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits; a ABA Health Law Coordinating Council representative, former Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division, past Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee, a former member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Benefits Association and others.

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

For more information about Ms. Stamer or her health industry and other experience and involvements, see here or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (469) 767-8872 or via e-mail here.

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

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information including your preferred e-mail by creating your profile here.

©2017 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ All other rights reserved. For information about republication or other use, please contact Ms. Stamer here.
 


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

October 25, 2016

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

SJH Investigation & Charges Resulting In $2.4 Million+ Settlement

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

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

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

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

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

SJH Settlement Agreement Highlights

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

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

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

Take Away For Other Covered Entities & Business Associates

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

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

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

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

About The Author

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

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

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

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

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares shared her thought leadership, experience and advocacy on HIPAA and other concerns by her service in the leadership of a broad range of other professional and civic organization including her involvement as the Vice Chair of the North Texas Healthcare Compliance Association, Executive Director of the Coalition on Responsible Health Policy and its PROJECT COPE: Coalition on Patient Empowerment, a founding Board Member and past President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence, past Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; former Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children; former Board Compliance Chair and Board member of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, current Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee, current Vice Chair of Policy for the Life Sciences Committee of the ABA International Section, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, a current Defined Contribution Plan Committee Co-Chair, former Group Chair and Co-Chair of the ABA RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, immediate past RPTE Representative to ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative and current RPTE Representative to the ABA Health Law Coordinating Council, former Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division, past Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee, a former member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Benefits Association and others.

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

About Solutions Law Press, Inc.™

Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ provides human resources and employee benefit and other business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other coaching, tools and other resources, training and education on leadership, governance, human resources, employee benefits, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ resources at http://www.solutionslawpress.com such as:

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information including your preferred e-mail by creating or updating your profile here.

©2016 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.™  All other rights reserved.  


All Covered Entities Should Learn Lessons From Mississippi Medical Center’s $2.75 Million HIPAA Resolution Agreement

July 27, 2016

Health care providers, health plans, healthcare clearinghouses (covered entities) and their business associates should reevaluate the adequacy of their practices and procedures for the protection of electronic protected health information (ePHI) on or accessible through laptops or other mobile devices in light of the $2.75 million penalty and other schooling the Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR) just gave the University of Mississippi (UM) Medical Center (UMMC) documented in a July 7, 2016 Resolution Agreement and Corrective Action Plan (Resolution Agreement) resolving OCR charges of multiple violations of the privacy, security and breach notification requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) OCR says it uncovered while investigating UMMC’s breach notification report to OCR of the loss a laptop containing 328 files containing the ePHI of an estimated 10,000 patients.

UMMC Report of Missing Laptop Leads To Multiple Charges & Resolution Agreement

Mississippi’s sole public academic health science center, UMMC provides patient care in four specialized hospitals on the Jackson campus and at clinics throughout Jackson and the State as well as conducts medical education and research functions.  Its designated health care component, UMMC, includes University Hospital, the site of the breach in this case, located on the main UMMC campus in Jackson.

The settlement agreed to by UMMC stems from charges resulting from an OCR investigation of UMMC triggered by a breach of unsecured electronic protected health information (“ePHI”) affecting approximately 10,000 individuals.

Like many prior resolution agreements previously announced by OCR, UMMC’s HIPAA woes came to light after a laptop went missing.  OCR learned of the breach and opened its investigation in response to a March 21, 2013 notification UMMC filed with OCR.  UMMC made the breach notification to comply with HIPAA’s Breach Notification Rule requirement that health care providers, health plans and healthcare clearinghouses (Covered Entities) timely notify affected individuals, OCR and others of breaches of unsecured ePHI.

UMMC’s breach notification disclosed that UMMC’s privacy officer had discovered a password-protected laptop containing ePHI of thousands of UMMC patients missing from UMMC’s Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU). UMMC additionally reported that based on its investigation, UMMC believed that the missing laptop likely was stolen by a visitor to the MICU who had inquired about borrowing one of the laptops.

After discovering the loss, UMMC disclosed the breach to local media and on its website and notified OCR of the breach but apparently did not individually notify the subjects of the missing ePHI.

In keeping with its announced policy of investigating all breach reports impacting 500 or more individuals, OCR opened an investigation into UMMC’s breach report.  Based on this investigation, OCR concluded that while the laptop apparently was password protected, UMMC had breached the Security Rules because ePHI stored on a UMMC network drive was vulnerable to unauthorized access via UMMC’s wireless network because users could use a generic username and password to access an active directory containing 67,000 files including 328 files containing the ePHI of an estimated 10,000 patients.

While OCR’s investigation confirmed that UMMC had implemented policies and procedures pursuant to the HIPAA Rules, OCR’s additionally found that the theft of the laptop that prompted UMMC’s breach report resulted from broad deficiencies in UMMC’s implementation and administration of these policies and its practices.

Based on these findings, OCR charged UMMC with the following HIPAA violations:

  • From the compliance date of the Security Rule, April 20, 2005, through the settlement date, UMMC violated 45 C.F.R. §164.308(a)(1)(i) by failing to implement policies and procedures to prevent, detect, contain, and correct security violations, including conducting an accurate and thorough assessment of the potential risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of all of the ePHI it holds, and implementing security measures sufficient to reduce risks and vulnerabilities to a reasonable and appropriate level;
  • From January 19, 2013, until March 1, 2014, UMMC violated 45 C.F.R. §164.310(c) by failing to implement physical safeguards for all workstations that access ePHI to restrict access to authorized users;
  • From the compliance date of the Security Rule, April 20, 2005, to March 14, 2013, UM violated 45 C.F.R. § 164.312 (a)(2)(i) by failing to assign a unique user name and/or number for identifying and tracking user identity in information systems containing ePHI including, for example, allowing workforce members to access ePHI on a shared department network drive through a generic account, preventing UMMC from tracking which specific users were accessing ePHI; and
  • While UMMC provided notification on UMMC’s website and in local media outlets following the discovery of the reported breach of unsecured ePHI,, UMMC violated the Breach Notification Rule by failing to notify each individual whose unsecured ePHI was reasonably believed to have been accessed, acquired, used, or disclosed as a result of the breach.

Finally, OCR determined that UMMC was aware of risks and vulnerabilities to its systems as far back as April 2005, yet took no significant risk management activity until after the breach, due largely to organizational deficiencies and insufficient institutional oversight.

To resolve these charges, UMMC agrees in the Resolution Agreement to pay OCR $2.75 million and implement a comprehensive compliance plan which among other things, requires UMMC to conduct a sweeping review and correct its HIPAA privacy, security and breach notification policies and their implementation and administration to comply with HIPAA as well as implement and administer detailed management and OCR oversight and reporting processes over the implementation and administration of these procedures.

Lessons For Other Covered Entities From UMMC Resolution Agreement

The UMMC charges and Resolution Agreement contains several key lessons for other covered entities and their business associates, which OCR’s July 21, 2016 announcement warns other covered entities and business associates to heed..

Certainly, the $2.75 million settlement amount reaffirms that covered entities and their business associates risk substantial liability for failing to properly assess and protect the security of ePHI in accordance with HIPAA’s Privacy and Security Rule.

Furthermore, the charges and Resolution Agreement also adds a new twist to OCR’s now well established to stiffly sanction covered entities and their business associates that fail appropriately assess and address risks to the security of their ePHI on or accessible from laptops or other mobile devices. Through previous resolution agreements and guidance, OCR has made clear that it interprets the HIPAA Security Rule as generally requiring that covered entities and business associates encrypt all laptops or other mobile devices containing ePHI.  The UMMC charges and Resolution Agreement makes clear that the responsibility to protect ePHI on or accessible through laptops or other mobile devices does not end with encryption.  Rather, the Resolution Agreement makes clear that covered entities and their business associates also must take appropriate, well-documented steps to monitor, assess, identify, and timely and effectively address other potential risks to the security of the ePHI.

The Resolution Agreement makes clear that these additional responsibilities include, but are not necessarily limited to ensuring that proper safeguards are implemented and enforced to secure access not only to the ePHI contained on the laptop as well as other data bases and systems containing ePHI accessible through the laptop.  In this respect, the Resolution Agreement particularly highlights the need for covered entities and their business associates to assess risks and take appropriate steps:

  • To safeguard the physical security of laptops and other mobile devices;
  • To prevent the use of generic or other unsecure passwords to access ePHI on or accessible through the laptop or other mobile device;
  • To establish and administer appropriate, well-documented processes for assessing and addressing the adequacy of safeguards for and potential threats to the security of ePHI both initially and on an ongoing basis in a manner that meaningfully assesses the actual risks and effectiveness of safeguards against these risks, including those resulting from nonadherence to required safeguards and practices such as the sharing of passwords, changing systems or circumstances, and other developments that potentially threaten the adequacy of ePHI security.

Furthermore, OCR’s July 21, 2016 press release concerning the Resolution Agreement also sends a clear message to all covered entities and business associates that OCR views HIPAA as requiring organizations not only to adopt written policies and procedures that comply on paper or in theory with HIPAA, but also to take steps to monitor and maintain the effectiveness of their safeguard by continuously assessing and monitoring their HIPAA risks and acting as necessary to ensure that required safeguards of protected health information and ePHI and other HIPAA requirements are effectively implemented and administered in operation as well as form.

In OCR’s Press Release announcing the Resolution Agreement, OCR Director Jocelyn Samuels. Stated, “We at OCR remain particularly concerned with unaddressed risks that may lead to impermissible access to ePHI.”  She also warned “In addition to identifying risks and vulnerabilities to their ePHI, entities must also implement reasonable and appropriate safeguards to address them within an appropriate time frame.”

Additionally, the Resolution Agreement also illustrates need for covered entities and business associates to timely provide all individual and other notifications and otherwise fully comply with all requirements of the Breach Notification Rules.

Since the risk of a breach is ever-present even for Covered Entities and business associates exercising the highest degree of care to safeguard PHI and maintain compliance with HIPAA, Covered Entities and business associates are wise to take steps to position themselves to be able to demonstrate the adequacy of both their written policies and procedures and the effectiveness of their implementation and enforcement including ongoing documented practices for assessing, monitoring and addressing security risks and other compliance concerns as well as prepare to comply with the breach notification requirements in the event they experience their own breach of unsecured ePHI.

About The Author

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, current American Bar Association (ABA) International Section Life Sciences Committee Vice Chair, former scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) Annual OCR Agency Meeting and JCEB Council Representative, former Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section,  the former Board President and Treasurer of the Richardson Development Center for Children Early Childhood Intervention Agency, and past  Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, and Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, is AV-Preeminent (the highest) rated attorney repeatedly recognized for her nearly 30 years of experience and knowledge representing and advising healthcare, health plan and other health industry and others on these and other regulatory, workforce, risk management, technology, public policy and operations matters as a Martindale-Hubble as a “LEGAL LEADER™” and “Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law, Labor and Employment Law, and Business & Commercial Law and among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” by D Magazine.

Ms. Stamer’s health industry experience includes advising hospitals, nursing home, home health, rehabilitation and other health care providers and health industry clients to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; prevent, conduct and investigate, and respond to peer review and other quality concerns; and to respond to Board of Medicine, Department of Aging & Disability, Drug Enforcement Agency, OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, Department of Labor, IRS, HHS, DOD and other health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns.

Ms. Stamer also is known for her experience in HIPAA and other privacy and data security and breach concerns.  The scribe for ABA JCEB annual agency meeting with OCR for many years, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively with health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses, their business associates, employers and other plan sponsors, banks and other financial institutions, and others on risk management and compliance with HIPAA, FACTA, trade secret and other information privacy and data security rules, including the establishment, documentation, implementation, audit and enforcement of policies, procedures, systems and safeguards, 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 care providers, health insurers, health plans, technology and other vendors, and others. In addition to representing and advising these organizations, she also has conducted training 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.

A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical  staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns. Her insights on these and other related matters appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, 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.

You can get more information about her health industry experience here or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (469) 767-8872 or via e-mail here.

 

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©2016 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C. Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc. All other rights reserved.

 


North Memorial Hit With $3.9M HIPAA Fine For HIPAA Violations

March 25, 2016

Just one day after the announcement of a $1,555,000 settlement with North Memorial Health Care of Minnesota under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Privacy and Security Rules, the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) announced March 17, 2016 that Feinstein Institute for Medical Research has agreed to pay  $3.9 million and will undertake a substantial corrective action plan to settle charges of HIPAA violations and  bring its operations into compliance.  The two settlements drive home again the substantial liability that health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses and their business associates risk for violating HIPAA. Register for March 30, 2016 Solutions Law Press, Inc. briefing to learn the latest about this and other new regulatory and enforcement guidance impacting the HIPAA compliance obligations and risks of health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses and their business associates.  3/30 Webex Shares Latest On Security, Patient Access & Other HIPAA Developments.

Feinstein Settlement

Feinstein is a biomedical research institute that is organized as a New York not-for-profit corporation and is sponsored by Northwell Health, Inc., formerly known as North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System, a large health system headquartered in Manhasset, New York that is comprised of twenty one hospitals and over 450 patient facilities and physician practices.

OCR’s investigation began after Feinstein filed a breach report indicating that on September 2, 2012, a laptop computer containing the electronic protected health information (ePHI) of approximately 13,000 patients and research participants was stolen from an employee’s car.  The ePHI stored in the laptop included the names of research participants, dates of birth, addresses, social security numbers, diagnoses, laboratory results, medications, and medical information relating to potential participation in a research study.

OCR’s investigation discovered that Feinstein’s security management process was limited in scope, incomplete, and insufficient to address potential risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of ePHI held by the entity.  Further, Feinstein lacked policies and procedures for authorizing access to ePHI by its workforce members, failed to implement safeguards to restrict access to unauthorized users, and lacked policies and procedures to govern the receipt and removal of laptops that contained ePHI into and out of its facilities.  For electronic equipment procured outside of Feinstein’s standard acquisition process, Feinstein failed to implement proper mechanisms for safeguarding ePHI as required by the Security Rule.

“Research institutions subject to HIPAA must be held to the same compliance standards as all other HIPAA-covered entities,” said OCR Director Jocelyn Samuels.  “For individuals to trust in the research process and for patients to trust in those institutions, they must have some assurance that their information is kept private and secure.”

The resolution agreement and corrective action plan may be found here.

The Feinstein settlement announcement follows yesterday’s announcement of a $1.5 million plus settlement with North Memorial to resolve HIPAA charges that it failed to implement a business associate agreement with a major contractor and failed to institute an organization-wide risk analysis to address the risks and vulnerabilities to its patient information. North Memorial is a comprehensive, not-for-profit health care system in Minnesota that serves the Twin Cities and surrounding communities.  The settlement highlights the importance for healthcare providers, health plans, healthcare clearinghouses and their business associates to comply with HIPAA’s business associate agreement and other HIPAA organizational, risk assessment, privacy and security, and other requirements.

OCR’s announcement emphasizes the importance of meeting these requirements.  “Two major cornerstones of the HIPAA Rules were overlooked by this entity,” said Jocelyn Samuels, Director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR). “Organizations must have in place compliant business associate agreements as well as an accurate and thorough risk analysis that addresses their enterprise-wide IT infrastructure.”

The settlement comes from charges filed after OCR initiated its investigation of North Memorial following receipt of a breach report on September 27, 2011, which indicated that an unencrypted, password-protected laptop was stolen from a business associate’s workforce member’s locked vehicle, impacting the electronic protected health information (ePHI) of 9,497 individuals.

OCR’s investigation indicated that North Memorial failed to have in place a business associate agreement, as required under the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules, so that its business associate could perform certain payment and health care operations activities on its behalf. North Memorial gave its business associate, Accretive, access to North Memorial’s hospital database, which stored the ePHI of 289,904 patients. Accretive also received access to non-electronic protected health information as it performed services on-site at North Memorial.

The investigation further determined that North Memorial failed to complete a risk analysis to address all of the potential risks and vulnerabilities to the ePHI that it maintained, accessed, or transmitted across its entire IT infrastructure — including but not limited to all applications, software, databases, servers, workstations, mobile devices and electronic media, network administration and security devices, and associated business processes.

In addition to the $1,550,000 payment, North Memorial is required to develop an organization-wide risk analysis and risk management plan, as required under the Security Rule. North Memorial will also train appropriate workforce members on all policies and procedures newly developed or revised pursuant to this corrective action plan.

The Resolution Agreement and Corrective Action Plan can be found here.

Settlement Latest Reminder To Manage HIPAA Risks

Following up on OCR’s imposition of its second-ever HIPAA Civil Monetary Penalty (CMP) and the latest in an ever-growing list of settlements by Covered Entities under HIPAA, the North Memorial settlement is another example of the substantial liability that Covered Entities face for violating HIPAA.  To avoid these liabilities, Covered Entities must constantly be diligent to comply with the latest guidance of OCR concerning their obligations under HIPAA.  As OCR continues to issue additional guidance as well as supplement this guidance through information shared in settlement agreements like the North Memorial settlement, even if Covered Entities reviewed their practices in the last 12-months, most will want to update this review in response to new OCR guidance and enforcement actions, including new guidance on obligations to provide plan members or other subjects of protected health information with access to or copies of their records and other guidance, as well as the ever expanding list of enforcement actions by OCR.

Since the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act of 2009 (HITECH) amended HIPAA, Covered Entities face growing responsibilities and liability for maintaining the security of ePHI. In response to HITECH, OCR continues to use a carrot and stick approach to encouraging and enforcing compliance. As demonstrated by OCR’s imposition of the second-ever HIPAA Civil Monetary Penalty (CMP) of $239,000 against Lincare and the ever-growing list of Resolution Agreements OCR announces with other Covered Entities, OCR continues to step up enforcement against Covered Entities that breach the Privacy and Security Rules. See OCR’s 2nd-Ever HIPAA CMP Nails Lincare For $239,000.

On the other hand, OCR also continues to encourage voluntary compliance by Covered Entities by sharing guidance and tools to aid Covered Entities to understand fulfill their HIPAA responsibilities such as the HIPAA Security Rule Crosswalk to NIST Cybersecurity Framework (Crosswalk) unveiled by OCR on February 24, 2016.The crosswalk that maps the HIPAA Security Rule to the standards of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity (the Cybersecurity Framework) as well as mappings to certain other commonly used security frameworks.

While stating that the HIPAA Security Rule does not require use of the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, OCR says it hopes the Crosswalk will provide “a helpful roadmap” for HIPAA Covered Entities and their business associates to understand the overlap between the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, the HIPAA Security Rule, and other security frameworks that can help Covered Entities safeguard health data in a time of increasing risks and help them to identify potential gaps in their programs. At the same time, OCR’s announcement of its release of the Crosswalk also cautions users that “use of the Framework does not guarantee HIPAA compliance.” Rather, OCR says “the crosswalk provides an informative tool for entities to use to help them more comprehensively manage security risks in their environments.

With a USA Today report attributing more than 40 percent of data breaches to the healthcare industry over the last three years 91 percent of all health organizations having reporting breaches over the last two years, OCR has made clear that it intends to zealously investigate and enforce the Security Rules against Covered Entities that violate the Security Rules against Covered Entities that fail to take suitable steps to safeguard the security of PHI as required by the HIPAA Security Rule. To meet these requirements, the HIPAA Security Rule requires that Covered Entities conduct and be prepared to product documentation of their audit and other efforts to comply with the Security Rule Most Covered Entities will want to consider including an assessment of the adequacy of their existing practices under the Crosswalk and other requirements disclosed by OCR in these assessments to help position the Covered Entity to defend or mitigate HIPAA CMP and other liabilities in the event of a HIPAA breach or audit.

Latest Guidance Clarifies Patient Rights To Access PHI & Allowable Charges

In addition to maintaining adequate security, HIPAA also requires Covered Entities to provide individuals with the right to access and receive a copy of their health information from their providers, hospitals, and health insurance plans in accordance with the HIPAA Privacy Rule. In response to recurrent difficulties experienced by individuals in exercising these rights, OCR recently published supplemental guidance to clarify and promote better understanding and compliance with these rules by Covered Entities.

OCR started this process in January, 2015 by releasing a comprehensive fact sheet (Access fact sheet) and the first in a series of topical frequently asked questions (FAQs) addressing patients’ right to access their medical records, which set forth requirements providers must follow in sharing medical records with patients, including that they must do so in a timely manner and in a format that works for the patient.

Earlier this month, OCR followed up by publishing on March 1, 2016 a second set of FAQs addresses additional issues, including the fees individuals may be charged for copies of their health information and the right of individuals to have their health information sent directly to a third party if they so choose.

Covered entities and their business associates should move quickly to review and update their business associate agreements and other  practices to comply with this new guidance as well as watch for further guidance and enforcement about these practices from OCR.

Other Key HIPAA Regulatory & Enforcement Changes Raise Responsibilities & Risks

OCR’s new guidance on access to PHI follows a host of other regulatory and enforcement activities. While the particulars of each of these new actions and guidance vary, all send a very clear message: OCR expects Covered Entities and their business associates to comply with HIPAA and is offering tools and other guidance to aid them in that process.. In the event of a breach or audit, Covered Entities and their business associates need to be prepared to demonstrate their efforts to comply. Those that cannot show adequate compliance efforts should be prepared for potentially substantial CMP or Resolution Agreement payments and other sanctions.

Register For 3/30 Webex Briefing

Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ invites to catch up on the latest guidance on the Covered Entities’ responsibility under HIPAA to provide access to patients to PHI by registering here to participate in the “HIPAA Update: The Latest On Security, Patient Access & Other HIPAA Developments” Webex briefing by attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer that Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ will host beginning at Noon Central Time on Wednesday, March 30, 2016. Get additional information or register here.

About The Author

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

Recognized as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in both Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law, a “Texas Top Lawyer,” an “AV-Preeminent” and “Top Rated Lawyer” by Martindale-Hubble and as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” in employee benefits 2015 by D Magazine; Ms. Stamer has more than 28 years of extensive proven, pragmatic knowledge and experience representing and advising health industry clients and others on operational, regulatory and other compliance, risk management, product and process development, public policy and other key concerns.

As a core component of her work as the Managing Shareholder of Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, PC, the Co-Managing Member of Stamer Chadwick Soefje PLLC, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively throughout her nearly 30 year career with health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses, their business associates, employers, banks and other financial institutions, their technology and other vendors and service providers, and others on legal and operational risk management and compliance with HIPAA, FACTA, PCI, trade secret, physician and other medical confidentiality and privacy, federal and state data security and data breach and other information privacy and data security rules and concerns; prevention, investigation, response, mitigation and resolution of known or suspected data or privacy breaches or other incidents; defending investigations or other actions by plaintiffs, OCR, FTC, state attorneys’ general and other federal or state agencies; reporting and redressing known or suspected breaches or other violations; business associate and other contracting; insurance or other liability management and allocation; process and product development, contracting, deployment and defense; evaluation, commenting or seeking modification of regulatory guidance, and other regulatory and public policy advocacy; training and discipline; enforcement, and a host of other related concerns for public and private health care providers, health insurers, health plans, technology and other vendors, employers, and others.

Beyond her extensive involvement advising and defending clients on these matters, Ms. Stamer also has served for several years as the scrivener for the ABA JCEB’s meeting with OCR for many years. She returns as Chair of the Southern California ISSA Health Care Privacy & Security Summit for the third year in 2016, as well as speaks and serves on the steering committee of a multitude of other programs.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares shared her thought leadership, experience and advocacy on HIPAA and other concerns by her service in the leadership of a broad range of other professional and civic organization including her involvement as the Vice Chair of the North Texas Healthcare Compliance Association, Executive Director of the Coalition on Responsible Health Policy and its PROJECT COPE; Coalition on Patient Empowerment, a founding Board Member and past President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence, past Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; former Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children; former Board Compliance Chair and Board member of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, current Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee, current Vice Chair of Policy for the Life Sciences Committee of the ABA International Section, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, a current Defined Contribution Plan Committee Co-Chair, former Group Chair and Co-Chair of the ABA RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, immediate past RPTE Representative to ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative and current RPTE Representative to the ABA Health Law Coordinating Counsel, former Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division, past Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee, a former member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Benefits Association and others.

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

About Solutions Law Press, Inc.™

Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ provides human resources and employee benefit and other business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other coaching, tools and other resources, training and education on leadership, governance, human resources, employee benefits, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ resources at http://www.solutionslawpress.com such as:

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information including your preferred e-mail by creating or updating your profile here.  ©2016 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ All other rights reserved.


North Memorial Health Care Pays $1.5M Plus HIPAA Settlement For Business Associate Agreement Deficiencies

March 16, 2016

North Memorial Health Care of Minnesota has agreed to pay $1,550,000 to settle charges that it potentially violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Privacy and Security Rules by failing to implement a business associate agreement with a major contractor and failing to institute an organization-wide risk analysis to address the risks and vulnerabilities to its patient information. North Memorial is a comprehensive, not-for-profit health care system in Minnesota that serves the Twin Cities and surrounding communities.  The settlement highlights the importance for healthcare providers, health plans, healthcare clearinghouses and their business associates to comply with HIPAA’s business associate agreement and other HIPAA organizational, risk assessment, privacy and security, and other requirements.

OCR’s announcement emphasizes the importance of meeting these requirements.  “Two major cornerstones of the HIPAA Rules were overlooked by this entity,” said Jocelyn Samuels, Director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR). “Organizations must have in place compliant business associate agreements as well as an accurate and thorough risk analysis that addresses their enterprise-wide IT infrastructure.”

The settlement comes from charges filed after OCR initiated its investigation of North Memorial following receipt of a breach report on September 27, 2011, which indicated that an unencrypted, password-protected laptop was stolen from a business associate’s workforce member’s locked vehicle, impacting the electronic protected health information (ePHI) of 9,497 individuals.

OCR’s investigation indicated that North Memorial failed to have in place a business associate agreement, as required under the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules, so that its business associate could perform certain payment and health care operations activities on its behalf. North Memorial gave its business associate, Accretive, access to North Memorial’s hospital database, which stored the ePHI of 289,904 patients. Accretive also received access to non-electronic protected health information as it performed services on-site at North Memorial.

The investigation further determined that North Memorial failed to complete a risk analysis to address all of the potential risks and vulnerabilities to the ePHI that it maintained, accessed, or transmitted across its entire IT infrastructure — including but not limited to all applications, software, databases, servers, workstations, mobile devices and electronic media, network administration and security devices, and associated business processes.

In addition to the $1,550,000 payment, North Memorial is required to develop an organization-wide risk analysis and risk management plan, as required under the Security Rule. North Memorial will also train appropriate workforce members on all policies and procedures newly developed or revised pursuant to this corrective action plan.

The Resolution Agreement and Corrective Action Plan can be found on the HHS website at: http://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/compliance-enforcement/agreements/north-memorial-health-care/index.html.

Settlement Latest Reminder To Manage HIPAA Risks

Following up on OCR’s imposition of its second-ever HIPAA Civil Monetary Penalty (CMP) and the latest in an ever-growing list of settlements by Covered Entities under HIPAA, the North Memorial settlement is another example of the substantial liability that Covered Entities face for violating HIPAA.  To avoid these liabilities, Covered Entities must constantly be diligent to comply with the latest guidance of OCR concerning their obligations under HIPAA.  As OCR continues to issue additional guidance as well as supplement this guidance through information shared in settlement agreements like the North Memorial settlement, even if Covered Entities reviewed their practices in the last 12-months, most will want to update this review in response to new OCR guidance and enforcement actions, including new guidance on obligations to provide plan members or other subjects of protected health information with access to or copies of their records and other guidance, as well as the ever expanding list of enforcement actions by OCR.

Since the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act of 2009 (HITECH) amended HIPAA, Covered Entities face growing responsibilities and liability for maintaining the security of ePHI. In response to HITECH, OCR continues to use a carrot and stick approach to encouraging and enforcing compliance. As demonstrated by OCR’s imposition of the second-ever HIPAA Civil Monetary Penalty (CMP) of $239,000 against Lincare and the ever-growing list of Resolution Agreements OCR announces with other Covered Entities, OCR continues to step up enforcement against Covered Entities that breach the Privacy and Security Rules. See OCR’s 2nd-Ever HIPAA CMP Nails Lincare For $239,000.

On the other hand, OCR also continues to encourage voluntary compliance by Covered Entities by sharing guidance and tools to aid Covered Entities to understand fulfill their HIPAA responsibilities such as the HIPAA Security Rule Crosswalk to NIST Cybersecurity Framework (Crosswalk) unveiled by OCR on February 24, 2016.The crosswalk that maps the HIPAA Security Rule to the standards of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity (the Cybersecurity Framework) as well as mappings to certain other commonly used security frameworks.

While stating that the HIPAA Security Rule does not require use of the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, OCR says it hopes the Crosswalk will provide “a helpful roadmap” for HIPAA Covered Entities and their business associates to understand the overlap between the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, the HIPAA Security Rule, and other security frameworks that can help Covered Entities safeguard health data in a time of increasing risks and help them to identify potential gaps in their programs. At the same time, OCR’s announcement of its release of the Crosswalk also cautions users that “use of the Framework does not guarantee HIPAA compliance.” Rather, OCR says “the crosswalk provides an informative tool for entities to use to help them more comprehensively manage security risks in their environments.

With a USA Today report attributing more than 40 percent of data breaches to the healthcare industry over the last three years 91 percent of all health organizations having reporting breaches over the last two years, OCR has made clear that it intends to zealously investigate and enforce the Security Rules against Covered Entities that violate the Security Rules against Covered Entities that fail to take suitable steps to safeguard the security of PHI as required by the HIPAA Security Rule. To meet these requirements, the HIPAA Security Rule requires that Covered Entities conduct and be prepared to product documentation of their audit and other efforts to comply with the Security Rule Most Covered Entities will want to consider including an assessment of the adequacy of their existing practices under the Crosswalk and other requirements disclosed by OCR in these assessments to help position the Covered Entity to defend or mitigate HIPAA CMP and other liabilities in the event of a HIPAA breach or audit.

Latest Guidance Clarifies Patient Rights To Access PHI & Allowable Charges

In addition to maintaining adequate security, HIPAA also requires Covered Entities to provide individuals with the right to access and receive a copy of their health information from their providers, hospitals, and health insurance plans in accordance with the HIPAA Privacy Rule. In response to recurrent difficulties experienced by individuals in exercising these rights, OCR recently published supplemental guidance to clarify and promote better understanding and compliance with these rules by Covered Entities.

OCR started this process in January, 2015 by releasing a comprehensive fact sheet (Access fact sheet) and the first in a series of topical frequently asked questions (FAQs) addressing patients’ right to access their medical records, which set forth requirements providers must follow in sharing medical records with patients, including that they must do so in a timely manner and in a format that works for the patient.

Earlier this month, OCR followed up by publishing on March 1, 2016 a second set of FAQs addresses additional issues, including the fees individuals may be charged for copies of their health information and the right of individuals to have their health information sent directly to a third party if they so choose.

Covered entities and their business associates should move quickly to review and update their business associate agreements and other  practices to comply with this new guidance as well as watch for further guidance and enforcement about these practices from OCR.

Other Key HIPAA Regulatory & Enforcement Changes Raise Responsibilities & Risks

OCR’s new guidance on access to PHI follows a host of other regulatory and enforcement activities. While the particulars of each of these new actions and guidance vary, all send a very clear message: OCR expects Covered Entities and their business associates to comply with HIPAA and is offering tools and other guidance to aid them in that process.. In the event of a breach or audit, Covered Entities and their business associates need to be prepared to demonstrate their efforts to comply. Those that cannot show adequate compliance efforts should be prepared for potentially substantial CMP or Resolution Agreement payments and other sanctions.

Register For 3/30 Webex Briefing

Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ invites to catch up on the latest guidance on the Covered Entities’ responsibility under HIPAA to provide access to patients to PHI by registering here to participate in the “HIPAA Update: The Latest On Security, Patient Access & Other HIPAA Developments” Webex briefing by attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer that Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ will host beginning at Noon Central Time on Wednesday, March 30, 2016. Get additional information or register here.

About The Author

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

Recognized as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in both Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law, a “Texas Top Lawyer,” an “AV-Preeminent” and “Top Rated Lawyer” by Martindale-Hubble and as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” in employee benefits 2015 by D Magazine; Ms. Stamer has more than 28 years of extensive proven, pragmatic knowledge and experience representing and advising health industry clients and others on operational, regulatory and other compliance, risk management, product and process development, public policy and other key concerns.

As a core component of her work as the Managing Shareholder of Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, PC, the Co-Managing Member of Stamer Chadwick Soefje PLLC, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively throughout her nearly 30 year career with health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses, their business associates, employers, banks and other financial institutions, their technology and other vendors and service providers, and others on legal and operational risk management and compliance with HIPAA, FACTA, PCI, trade secret, physician and other medical confidentiality and privacy, federal and state data security and data breach and other information privacy and data security rules and concerns; prevention, investigation, response, mitigation and resolution of known or suspected data or privacy breaches or other incidents; defending investigations or other actions by plaintiffs, OCR, FTC, state attorneys’ general and other federal or state agencies; reporting and redressing known or suspected breaches or other violations; business associate and other contracting; insurance or other liability management and allocation; process and product development, contracting, deployment and defense; evaluation, commenting or seeking modification of regulatory guidance, and other regulatory and public policy advocacy; training and discipline; enforcement, and a host of other related concerns for public and private health care providers, health insurers, health plans, technology and other vendors, employers, and others.

Beyond her extensive involvement advising and defending clients on these matters, Ms. Stamer also has served for several years as the scrivener for the ABA JCEB’s meeting with OCR for many years. She returns as Chair of the Southern California ISSA Health Care Privacy & Security Summit for the third year in 2016, as well as speaks and serves on the steering committee of a multitude of other programs.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares shared her thought leadership, experience and advocacy on HIPAA and other concerns by her service in the leadership of a broad range of other professional and civic organization including her involvement as the Vice Chair of the North Texas Healthcare Compliance Association, Executive Director of the Coalition on Responsible Health Policy and its PROJECT COPE; Coalition on Patient Empowerment, a founding Board Member and past President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence, past Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; former Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children; former Board Compliance Chair and Board member of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, current Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee, current Vice Chair of Policy for the Life Sciences Committee of the ABA International Section, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, a current Defined Contribution Plan Committee Co-Chair, former Group Chair and Co-Chair of the ABA RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, immediate past RPTE Representative to ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative and current RPTE Representative to the ABA Health Law Coordinating Counsel, former Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division, past Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee, a former member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Benefits Association and others.

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

About Solutions Law Press, Inc.™

Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ provides human resources and employee benefit and other business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other coaching, tools and other resources, training and education on leadership, governance, human resources, employee benefits, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ resources at http://www.solutionslawpress.com such as:

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©2016 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ All other rights reserved.


Providers Get More Flexibility To Report Mental Health Patients To Gun Data Base Under New Privacy Rule

January 6, 2016

As part of the broader series of regulatory and executive actions that President Obama says the Obama Administration is taking in hopes of deterring gun violence, the Department of Health & Human Service Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) is amending the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”) Privacy Rule applicable to health care providers, health plans, healthcare clearinghouses and their business associates (hereafter, collectively “Covered Entities”) to expressly permit some (not all) HIPAA-Covered Entities to disclose the identities of and certain other protected health information (PHI) of individuals with certain mental health conditions that would disqualify the individual from having a firearm under Federal law.

“The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule and the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS): Final Rule” (“Final Rule”) scheduled for official publication in the Federal Register today (January 6, 2016).

The adoption of the Final Rule provides more latitude for some by not all health care providers covered by HIPAA to report for listing on the NICS patients with gun ownership disqualifying mental health histories under the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, Pub. L. 103-159 (Brady Gun Law), and its implementing regulations.

However, an analysis of a prepublication copy of the Final Rule available for review here reveals that while the Final Rule will provide greater latitude for some Covered Entities to disclose the identify and other specified PHI to the NICS data base, Covered Entities contemplating making such disclosures should conduct a careful, well-documented analysis of the proposed report to ensure that the disclosure fulfills each of the requirements to qualify as allowed by the Final Rule.

The NICS reporting and other requirements of the Brady Gun Law and the Gun Control Act of 1968, as amended (Title 18, United States Code, Chapter 44), certain individuals from owning, and licensed dealers from selling or otherwise transferring firearms to certain categories of individuals referred to as “prohibitors” including felons and, most relevant for the Final Rule, “mental health prohibitors.”

Under the Department of Justice (DOJ) regulations, a “mental health prohibitors” are defined as individuals who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution, for reasons such as mental illness or drug use; found incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity; or otherwise determined by a court, board, commission, or other lawful authority to be a danger to themselves or others or unable to manage their own affairs, as a result of marked subnormal intelligence, or mental illness, incompetency.

Prior to the adoption of the Final Rule, many health care providers have cited the HIPAA Privacy Rule as a deterrent to their reporting patients whose mental health history would qualify the patients as mental health prohibitors to the NICS. The HIPAA Privacy Rule, establishes federal protections to ensure the privacy and security of protected health information (PHI) and establishes an array of individual rights with respect to one’s own health information by providing that Covered Entities may only use and disclose individually identifiable health care information considered “protected health information” for purposes of HIPAA (“PHI” with the individual’s written authorization, or as otherwise expressly permitted or required by the HIPAA Privacy Rule.

As interpreted by OCR prior to its adoption of the Final Rule, a health care provider or other Covered Entity generally could not rely upon exceptions from the Privacy Rule for disclosures to law enforcement or for safety to exempt the report from HIPAA’s prohibitions against disclosure of PHI where the record of an involuntary commitment or mental health adjudication originated with a HIPAA covered entity, or the HIPAA covered entity is the State repository for such records. Rather, OCR interpreted the Privacy Rule as providing only three possible ways in which Covered Entities generally could report to the NICS (without the individual’s authorization):

  • The patient authorized the disclosure in accordance with the HIPAA Privacy Rule;
  • Where a State enacted a law that requires (and does not merely authorize) such reporting; or
  • Where no such state law exists, a HIPAA covered entity that performs both health care and non-health care functions (e.g., NICS reporting) could become a hybrid entity under HIPAA so that the Privacy Rule applies only to its health care functions and then report the prohibitor information through its non-HIPAA covered NICS reporting unit without restriction under the Privacy Rule.

OCR’s adoption of the Final Rule implements changes that it previously proposed in 2013 as part of a series of 23 executive actions President Obama proposed in 2013 aimed at curbing gun violence across the nation. OCR says its adoption of the Final Rule is an important step to improving public safety by better enabling the reporting of the identities of prohibited individuals to the background check system “while continuing to strongly protect individuals’ privacy interests.”

While preserving these options, the Final Rule expands the authority of health care providers and other Covered Entities to report a mental health prohibitor to the NICS data bank by creating a specific NICS reporting disclosure exception to the HIPAA Privacy Rule’s general prohibitions against disclosures of PHI without authorization in Privacy Rule § 164.512(k)(7).

Health care providers and other Covered Entities considering making NICS reports about the mental health history of individuals that qualifies as PHI should proceed with caution. The Final Rule only authorizes NICS disclosures of PHI for a small subset of HIPAA Covered Entities that either make the mental health determinations that disqualify individuals from having a firearm or are designated by their States to report this information to NICS. The rule does not apply to most treating providers.

Under the Final Rule, a Covered Entity may use or disclose PHI for purposes of reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System the identity of an individual who is prohibited from possessing a firearm as a mental health prohibitor under 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(4), if the Covered Entity:

  • Is a State agency or other entity that is, or contains an entity that is either
    •  An entity designated by the State to report, or which collects information for purposes of reporting, on behalf of the State, to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System; or
    • A court, board, commission, or other lawful authority that makes the commitment or adjudication that causes an individual to be a mental health prohibitor; and
  • Discloses the information only to:
    • The National Instant Criminal Background Check System; or
    • An entity designated by the State to report, or which collects information for purposes of reporting, on behalf of the State, to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System; and
  • Discloses only the limited demographic and certain other information needed for purposes of reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System; and
  • Does not disclose diagnostic or clinical information for such purposes.

Health care providers contemplating making or the need to consider making NICS reports about persons with mental health treatment histories need to proceed cautiously as even following the adoption of the Final Rule, the health care provider should anticipate the need to manage a number of risks under HIPAA and otherwise. Obviously, since disclosure of PHI in a NICS report or otherwise exposes health care providers and other Covered Entities to civil penalties, criminal prosecution, licensing board or other disciplinary actions as well as a host of other adverse consequences, a health care provider or other Covered Entity contemplating making a NICS disclosure under the Final Rule or any other disclosure of PHI will want to ensure the all requirements to make the use or disclosure permitted under the Privacy Rule are met.

Beyond these HIPAA considerations, since the disclosures specifically relate to individuals suffering mental illness, health care providers or other Covered Entities also should take steps to mitigate their potential exposures to potential charges of disability discrimination which if not properly managed, could trigger civil sanctions by OCR under its disability discrimination rules, limitation or exclusion from Medicare or other federal program participation, law suits and other liabilities.

In addition, Covered Entities also will want to consider and manage the foreseeable challenges and exposures that could arise from the disclosure under medical malpractice, licensing board, ethics, confidentiality and other applicable federal and state laws and regulations

In light of these and other risks, health care providers or other Covered Entities contemplating making or facing the need to consider making a NICS report should consider, among other things engaging the assistance of qualified legal counsel experienced with HIPAA and these other matters to assist and advise them about:

  • Reviewing their existing policies and procedures in light of the Final Rule, as well as their state’s current policies regarding the permissibility or requirement to make NICS reports;
  • Updating their written privacy practices and notices of their privacy practices to allow the NICS report in accordance with the Final Rule
    Ensuring that the updated privacy notices are distributed going forward to patients and posted on their websites, in their facilities as required to comply with the Privacy Rule;
  • Exercising care both to verify that all requirements of the Final Rule (or the other alternatives for allowing disclosure) are met and to preserve documentation of this analysis in the event of a future complaint or investigation;
  • Reviewing and adopting additional protocols to manage potential mental health disability discrimination exposures under federal and state disability or other discrimination and laws; and
  • Considering and implementing other processes to manage foreseeable malpractice, breach of medical confidentiality, licensing or ethical requirements or other risks that could result from such disclosures.

For More Information Or Assistance

The author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, has extensive experience representing and advising health industry clients and others on these and other regulatory, risk management, public policy and operations matters.

Recognized as a “Top Lawyer” and “Legal Leader” in Healthcare Law, Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law, and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer has more than 28 years’ experience advising health industry clients about these and other matters. Her experience includes advising hospitals, nursing home, home health, rehabilitation and other health care providers and health industry clients to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; prevent, conduct and investigate, and respond to peer review and other quality concerns; and to respond to Board of Medicine, Department of Aging & Disability, Drug Enforcement Agency, OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, Department of Labor, IRS, HHS, DOD and other health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management 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, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively with health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses, their business associates, employers, 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 care providers, health insurers, health plans, technology and other vendors, and others. In addition to representing and advising these organizations, she also has conducted training 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.

A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns. Her insights on these and other related matters appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, 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. You can get more information about her health industry experience here. If you need assistance responding to concerns about the matters discussed in this publication or other health care concerns, wish to obtain information about arranging for training or presentations by Ms. Stamer, wish to suggest a topic for a future program or update, or wish to request other information or materials, please contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

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©2016 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C. Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc. All other rights reserved.


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