Health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouse and their business associates (“Covered Entities”) should reconfirm the adequacy of their organization’s Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”) compliance in light the U.S Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) February 7, 2019 announcement that OCR reached a 2018 year-end $3 Million Resolution Agreement with California-based Cottage Health that pushed OCR’s already record-setting 2018 enforcement HIPAA recoveries to more than $28.7 million in a year already distinguished by OCR’s record-setting $16 million resolution payment collection from Anthem.
Along with acting to ensure their own organization’s ability to defend their HIPAA compliance, Covered Entities and their leaders also should take advantage of the opportunity to provide input to OCR on opportunities for simplifying and improving OCR’s HIPAA regulations and enforcement by submitting relevant comments by February 12, 2019 in response to a Request for Information published by OCR in December that invites public input.
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2018 Cottage Health Resolution Agreement
According to OCR’s February 7, 2019 announcement, Cottage Health agreed in OCR’s final settlement of 2017 to pay OCR $3 million and to adopt a substantial corrective action plan to settle charges of HIPAA violations resulting from OCR’s investigations into two HIPAA Breach notifications Cottage Health filed regarding breaches of unsecured electronic protected health information (ePHI) affecting over 62,500 individuals.
- A December 2, 2013 breach notification that the removal of electronic security protections by a Cottage Health contractor rendered ePHI such as patient names, addresses, dates of birth, diagnoses/conditions, lab results and other treatment information of 33,349 individuals on a Cottage Health server accessible for download without a username or password from the internet to anyone outside Cottage Health. In an update to its original report filed on July 2, 2014, Cottage Health increased the number of individuals affected by this breach to 50,917. OCR’s investigation determined that security configuration settings of the Windows operating system permitted access to files containing ePHI without requiring a username and password. As a result, patient names, addresses, dates of birth, diagnoses, conditions, lab results and other treatment information were available to anyone with access to Cottage Health’s server.
- A December 1, 2015, that the misconfiguration of a server following an IT response to a troubleshooting ticket, exposed unsecured ePHI including patient names, addresses, dates of birth, social security numbers, diagnoses, conditions, and other treatment information of 11,608 individuals over the internet.
Based upon its investigation into the two breach reports, OCR concluded Cottage Health violated HIPAA by failing to conduct an accurate and thorough assessment of the potential risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of the ePHI; failed to implement security measures sufficient to reduce risks and vulnerabilities to a reasonable and appropriate level; failed to perform periodic technical and non-technical evaluations in response to environmental or operational changes affecting the security of ePHI; and failed to obtain a written business associate agreement with a contractor that maintained ePHI on its behalf.
To resolve its exposure to potentially must greater civil monetary sanctions that OCR might seek for such potential violations under HIPAA’s civil monetary sanction rules, Cottage Health entered into December, 2018 Resolution Agreement to pay the $3 million settlement and undertake what OCR characterizes as “a robust corrective action plan to comply with the HIPAA Rules.” Among other things, the corrective action plan requires Cottage Health to:
- Conduct an enterprise-wide risk analysis of the potential risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of ePHI held by Cottage Health (“Risk Analysis”) that OCR views as satisfactory to meet the requirements of 45 CFR 164.308(a)(1)(ii)(A);
- Develop and implement a risk management plan to address and mitigate any security risks and vulnerabilities identified in the Risk Analysis acceptable to OCR;
- Implement a process for regularly evaluating environmental and operational changes that affect the security of Cottage Health’s ePHI;
- Develop, maintain, and revise, as necessary, written policies and procedures to comply with the Federal standards that govern the privacy and security of individually identifiable health information under 45 C.F.R. Part 160 and Subparts A, C, and E of Part 164 (the “Privacy Rule” and “Security Rule”).
- Distribute to and conduct training on the HIPAA policies and procedures from all existing and new members of the Cottage Health workforce with access to PHI. Additionally, Cottage Health require all workforce members that have access to PHI to certify their receipt of, understanding and commitment to comply with the HIPAA Policies before allowing access to PHI and must deny access to PHI to any workforce member that has not provided the required certification.
- Submit to ongoing notification and reporting requirements to keep OCR informed about its compliance efforts.
2018 Record Setting HIPAA Enforcement Year
The final Resolution Agreement negotiated by OCR in 2018, the $3 million Cottage Health Resolution Agreement signed on December 11, 2018 added to an already record-setting year of HIPAA enforcement recoveries by OCR. In addition to recovering the single largest individual HIPAA settlement in history of $16 million with Anthem, Inc. OCR’s recovery of the following HIPAA settlements and fines totaling nearly $28.7 million surpassed its previous 2016 record of $23.5 million by 22 percent.
|Jan. 2018||Filefax, Inc (settlement)||$ 100,000|
|Jan. 2018||Fresenius Medical Care North America (settlement)||$ 3,500,000|
|June 2018||MD Anderson (judgment)||$ 4,348,000|
|Aug. 2018||Boston Medical Center (settlement)||$ 100,000|
|Sep. 2018||Brigham and Women’s Hospital (settlement)||$ 384,000|
|Sep. 2018||Massachusetts General Hospital (settlement)||$ 515,000|
|Sep. 2018||Advanced Care Hospitalists (settlement)||$ 500,000|
|Oct. 2018||Allergy Associates of Hartford (settlement)||$ 125,000|
|Oct. 2018||Anthem, Inc (settlement)||$ 16,000,000|
|Nov. 2018||Pagosa Springs (settlement)||$ 111,400|
|Dec. 2018||Cottage Health (settlement)||$ 3,000,000|
|Total (settlements and judgment)||$ 28,683,400|
Aside from the previously discussed Cottage Health Resolution Agreement OCR announced on February 7, 2019, these OCR 2018 enforcement recoveries included:
- FileFax Resolution Agreement. In January 2018, OCR settled for $100,000 with Filefax, Inc., a medical records maintenance, storage, and delivery services provider. OCR’s investigation found that Filefax impermissibly disclosed protected health information (PHI) by leaving the PHI in an unlocked truck in the Filefax parking lot, or by granting permission to an unauthorized person to remove the PHI from Filefax, and leaving the PHI unsecured outside the Filefax facility.
- Fresenius Medical Care North America Resolution Agreement. In January 2018, OCR also settled for $3.5 million with Fresenius Medical Care North America (FMCNA), a provider of products and services for people with chronic kidney failure. FMCNA filed five breach reports for separate incidents occurring between February 23, 2012 and July 18, 2012, implicating the electronic protected health information (ePHI) of five FMCNA owned covered entities. OCR’s investigation revealed that FMCNA failed to conduct an accurate and thorough risk analysis of potential risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of all of its ePHI. Additional potential violations included failure to implement policies and procedures and failure to implement a mechanism to encrypt and decrypt ePHI, when it was reasonable and appropriate to do so under the circumstances.
- MD Anderson ALJ Ruling. In June 2018, an HHS Administrative Law Judge ruled in favor of OCR and required The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center (MD Anderson), a Texas cancer center, to pay $4.3 million in civil money penalties for HIPAA violations. OCR investigated MD Anderson following three separate data breach reports in 2012 and 2013 involving the theft of an unencrypted laptop from the residence of an MD Anderson employee and the loss of two unencrypted universal serial bus (USB) thumb drives containing the unencrypted ePHI of over 33,500 individuals. OCR’s investigation found that MD Anderson had written encryption policies going back to 2006 and that MD Anderson’s own risk analyses had found that the lack of device-level encryption posed a high risk to the security of ePHI. Despite the encryption policies and high risk findings, MD Anderson did not begin to adopt an enterprise-wide solution to encrypt ePHI until 2011, and even then it failed to encrypt its inventory of electronic devices containing ePHI between March 24, 2011 and January 25, 2013. This matter is under appeal with the HHS Departmental Appeals Board.
- MMC/BWH/MGH Resolution Agreements. In September 2018, OCR announced that it has reached separate settlements totaling $999,000, with Boston Medical Center (BMC), Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) for compromising the privacy of patients’ PHI by inviting film crews on premises to film an ABC television network documentary series, without first obtaining authorization from patients.
- ACH Resolution Agreement. In September 2018, OCR also settled with Advanced Care Hospitalists (ACH), a contractor physician group, for $500,000. ACH filed a breach report confirming that ACH patient information was viewable on a medical billing services’ website. OCR’s investigation revealed that ACH never had a business associate agreement with the individual providing medical billing services to ACH, and failed to adopt any policy requiring business associate agreements until April 2014. Although ACH had been in operation since 2005, it had not conducted a risk analysis or implemented security measures or any other written HIPAA policies or procedures before 2014.
- Allergy Associates Resolution Agreement. In October 2018, OCR settled with Allergy Associates, a health care practice that specializes in treating individuals with allergies, for $125,000. In February 2015, a patient of Allergy Associates contacted a local television station to speak about a dispute that had occurred between the patient and an Allergy Associates’ doctor. OCR’s investigation found that the reporter subsequently contacted the doctor for comment and the doctor impermissibly disclosed the patient’s PHI to the reporter.
- Anthem Resolution Agreement. In October 2018, Anthem, Inc. also paid $16 million to OCR and agreed to take substantial corrective action to settle potential violations of the HIPAA Rules after a series of cyberattacks led to the largest U.S. health data breach in history. Anthem filed a breach report after discovering cyber-attackers had gained access to their IT system via an undetected continuous and targeted cyberattack for the apparent purpose of extracting data, otherwise known as an advanced persistent threat attack. After filing their breach report, Anthem discovered cyber-attackers had infiltrated their system through spear phishing emails sent to an Anthem subsidiary after at least one employee responded to the malicious email and opened the door to further attacks. OCR’s investigation revealed that between December 2, 2014 and January 27, 2015, the cyber-attackers stole the ePHI of almost 79 million individuals, including names, social security numbers, medical identification numbers, addresses, dates of birth, email addresses, and employment information.
- Pegosa Springs Medical Center. In November 2018, Pagosa Springs Medical Center (PSMC), a critical access hospital, paid $111,400 to OCR to resolve potential violations concerning a former PSMC employee that continued to have remote access to PSMC’s web-based scheduling calendar, which contained patients’ ePHI, after separation of employment. OCR’s investigation revealed that PSMC impermissibly disclosed the ePHI of 557 individuals to its former employee and to the web-based scheduling calendar vendor without a business associate agreement in place.
These 2018 Resolution Agreements reaffirm the growing risks that Covered Entities and their business associates run by failing to take adequate steps to prevent and respond to breaches of ePHI and otherwise to maintain their compliance with HIPAA. Covered entities and business associates and their leaders should recognize and respond to these growing risks by reevaluating and strengthening their HIPAA compliance and risk management efforts to minimize the likelihood of violations and enhance their ability to mitigate potential liability that can result from breaches of HIPAA by responding efficiently and effectively.
Other Regulatory & Enforcement Developments
In addition to reaffirming their ongoing compliance with the longstanding requirements of HIPAA and other related federal and state laws, Covered Entities also should use care to carefully monitor and respond to new regulatory and other developments that might create new responsibilities or new opportunities to simplify their HIPAA compliance. In this respect, Covered Entities should take note of the 2018 and ongoing efforts by OCR to develop and publish new rules and other guidance intended to help health care providers and other Covered Entities, patients and caregivers and others understand their rights and responsibilities when dealing with protected health information in relation to patients afflicted with substance abuse and mental illness. Undertaken as part of the Trump Administration’s broader effort to combat opiate and other substance abuse within the United States, OCR in October published a package of guidance on How HIPAA Allows Doctors To Respond To The Opioid Crisis. Covered Entities and others concerned with the management of patients afflicted with substance abuse and mental illness should evaluate this guidance to understand and tailor their practices to respond to OCR’s perspectives of how HIPAA impacts the use, access and disclosure of protected health information as part of these efforts.
Covered Entities and others concerned about HIPAA compliance and interpretation also should carefully monitor and provide appropriate and timely input on developing HIPAA guidance that could impact their operations. In this regard, Covered Entities with ideas about opportunities for improving existing HIPAA guidance are encouraged to submit comments to OCR by February 12, 2019 in response to its Request for Information on improving care coordination and reducing the regulatory burdens of the HIPAA Rules published on December 12, 2018. In that RFI, OCR invites input from the public on how the HIPAA Privacy Rule, could be modified to:
- Encourage information-sharing for treatment and care coordination;
- Facilitate parental involvement in care;
- Address the opioid crisis and serious mental illness;
- Account for disclosures of PHI for treatment, payment, and health care operations as required by the HITECH Act;
- Change the current requirement for certain providers to make a good faith effort to obtain an acknowledgment of receipt of the Notice of Privacy Practices; and/or
- Otherwise simplify or improve the existing HIPAA rules.
As a part of these efforts, Covered Entities and other concerned parties also should anticipate that OCR will be focusing heavily in the upcoming year on the potential HIPAA privacy and security implications of efforts by its sister agency, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (“ONC”), to promote greater interoperability of electronic medical records discussed in ONC’s recent 2018 Report to Congress: Annual Update on the Adoption of a Nationwide System for the Electronic Use and Exchange of Health Information (“Report”).
Under the 21st Century Cures Act, Congress gave ONC authority to enhance innovation, scientific discovery, and expand the access and use of health information through provisions related to:
- The development and use of upgraded health IT capabilities;
- Transparent expectations for data sharing, including through open application programming interfaces (APIs); and
- Improvement of the health IT end-user experience, including by reducing administrative burden.
These priorities seek to increase nationwide interoperability of health information and reduce clinician burden. The Report says increases in the adoption of health IT means most Americans receiving health care services now have their health data recorded electronically. However, this information is not always accessible across systems and by all end users—such as patients, health care providers, and payers—in the market in productive ways. While the Report states ONC intends to move forward to promote efforts to help ensure that electronic health information can be shared safely and securely where appropriate to improve the health and care of all Americans, these activities inherently will raise many HIPAA concerns and challenges. Covered Entities and others concerned with these activities will want to carefully monitor the concurrent activities of OCR and ONC as these efforts progress, both to help tailor their planning and compliance efforts to respond to the anticipated demand for greater interoperability as required by ONC and to help shape these rules by providing timely input as appropriate in response to these developments.
About the Author
Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: Erisa & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years of managed care and other health industry, health and other benefit and insurance, workforce and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications.
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 has been continuously involved the design, regulation, administration and defense of managed care and other health and employee benefit, health care, human resources and other staffing and workforce arrangements, contracts, systems, and processes. As a continuous component of this work, Ms. Stamer has worked closely with these and other clients on the design, development, administration, defense, and breach and data recovery of health care, workforce, insurance and financial services, trade secret and other information technology, data and related process and systems development, policy and operations throughout her career.
Scribe of the ABA JCEB annual Office of Civil Rights agency meeting, Ms. Stamer also is widely recognized for her extensive work and leadership on leading edge health care and benefit policy and operational issues.
Ms. Stamer’s clients include public and private, domestic and international hospitals, health care systems, clinics, skilled nursing, long-term care, rehabilitation and other health care providers and facilities; medical staff, health care accreditation, peer review and quality committees and organizations; employers and other workforce management organizations; employer, union, association, government and other insured and self-insured health and other employee benefit plan sponsors, benefit plans, fiduciaries, administrators, and other plan vendors; managed care organizations, insurers, self-insured health plans and other payers and their management; managed care organizations, insurers, third-party administrative services organizations and other payer organizations; billing, utilization management, management services organizations; group purchasing organizations; pharmaceutical, pharmacy, and prescription benefit management and organizations; claims, billing and other health care and insurance technology and data service organizations; other health, employee benefit, insurance and financial services product and solutions consultants, developers and vendors; and other health, employee benefit, insurance, technology, government and other management clients.
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, Ms. Stamer has been extensively involved in U.S. federal, state and local health care and other legislative and regulatory reform impacting these concerns throughout her career. Her public policy and regulatory affairs experience encompasses advising and representing domestic and multinational private sector health, insurance, employee benefit, employer, staffing and other outsourced service providers, and other clients in dealings with Congress, state legislatures, and federal, state and local regulators and government entities, as well as providing advice and input to U.S. and foreign government leaders on these and other policy concerns.
Beyond her public policy and regulatory affairs involvement, Ms. Stamer also has extensive experience helping these and other clients to design, implement, document, administer and defend workforce, employee benefit, insurance and risk management, health and safety, and other programs, products and solutions, and practices; establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; comply with requirements, investigate and respond to government; accreditation and quality organizations; private litigation and other federal and state health care industry investigations and enforcement actions; evaluate and influence legislative and regulatory reforms and other regulatory and public policy advocacy; training and discipline; enforcement, and a host of other related concerns. Ms. Stamer’s experience in these matters includes supporting these organizations and their leaders on both a real-time, “on demand” basis with crisis preparedness, intervention and response as well as consulting and representing clients on ongoing compliance and risk management; plan and program design; vendor and employee credentialing, selection, contracting, performance management and other dealings; strategic planning; policy, program, product and services development and innovation; mergers, acquisitions, and change management; workforce and operations management, and other opportunities and challenges arising in the course of their operations.
Ms. Stamer also has extensive health care reimbursement and insurance experience advising and defending plan sponsors, administrators, insurance and managed care organizations, health care providers, payers, and others about Medicare, Medicaid, Medicare and Medicaid Advantage, Tri-Care, self-insured group, association, individual and employer and association 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. Scribe for the ABA JCEB annual agency meeting with HHS OCR, she also has worked extensively on health and health benefit coding, billing and claims, meaningful use and EMR, billing and reimbursement, quality measurement and reimbursement, HIPAA, FACTA, PCI, trade secret, physician and other medical, workforce, consumer financial and other data confidentiality and privacy, federal and state data security, data breach and mitigation, and other information privacy and data security concerns.
Author of leading works on a multitude of health care, health plan and other health industry matters, 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 and CLE and Marketing Committee Chair, 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’s health industry clients include public health organizations; public and private hospitals, healthcare systems, clinics and other health care facilities; physicians, physician practices, medical staff, and other provider organizations; skilled nursing, long-term care, assisted living, home health, ambulatory surgery, dialysis, telemedicine, DME, Pharma, clinics, and other health care providers; billing, management and other administrative services organizations; insured, self-insured, association and other health plans; PPOs, HMOs and other managed care organizations, insurance, claims administration, utilization management, and other health care payers; public and private peer review, quality assurance, accreditation and licensing; technology and other outsourcing; healthcare clearinghouse and other data; research; public and private social and community organizations; real estate, technology, clinical pathways, and other developers; investors, banks and financial institutions; audit, accounting, law firm; consulting; document management and recordkeeping, business associates, vendors, and service providers and other professional and other health industry organizations; academic medicine; trade associations; legislative and other law making bodies and others.
A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about contracting, credentialing and quality assurance, compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, privacy and data security, and other risk management and operational matters. Author of works on Payer and Provider Contracting and many other managed care concerns, 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; an 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.
About Solutions Law Press, Inc.™
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