Phoenix-based nonprofit health system Banner Health and its affiliates (“Banner Health”) paid $1.25 million and agreed to take corrective actions to resolve its exposure to potentially much greater Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Security Rule civil monetary penalty exposure for a 2016 cyber hacking breach that compromised the person health information of 2.81 million consumers. OCR used its February 2 announcement of the Banner Health settlement to warn health care providers, health plans, health care clearing houses (“covered entities”) and business associates covered by HIPAA to guard their own system containing protected health information against breach by cyber hacking.
Banner Health Settlement
Banner Health is one of the largest non-profit health systems in the country, with over 50,000 employees and operating in six states. Banner Health is the largest employer in Arizona, and one of the largest in northern Colorado.
In November 2016, OCR initiated an investigation of Banner Health following the receipt of a breach report stating that a threat actor had gained unauthorized access to electronic protected health information, potentially affecting millions. The hacker accessed protected health information that included patient names, physician names, dates of birth, addresses, Social Security numbers, clinical details, dates of service, claims information, lab results, medications, diagnoses and conditions, and health insurance information.
OCR’s investigation found evidence of long term, pervasive noncompliance with the HIPAA Security Rule across Banner Health’s organization, a serious concern given the size of this covered entity. Organizations must be proactive in their efforts to regularly monitor system activity for hacking incidents and have measures in place to sufficiently safeguard patient information from risk across their entire network.
The potential violations specifically include: the lack of an analysis to determine risks and vulnerabilities to electronic protected health information across the organization, insufficient monitoring of its health information systems’ activity to protect against a cyber-attack, failure to implement an authentication process to safeguard its electronic protected health information, and failure to have security measures in place to protect electronic protected health information from unauthorized access when it was being transmitted electronically.
Under the Resolution Agreement and Corrective Action Plan negotiated to resolve these potential violations, Banner Health paid $1,250,000 to OCR. Banner Health also agreed to implement a corrective action plan, which identifies steps Banner Health will take to resolve these potential violations of the HIPAA Security Rule and protect the security of electronic patient health information that will be monitored for two years by OCR to ensure compliance with the HIPAA Security Rule. Under the corrective action plan, Banner has agreed to take the following steps:
- Conduct an accurate and thorough risk analysis to determine risks and vulnerabilities to electronic patient/system data across the organization
- Develop and implement a risk management plan to address identified risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of ePHI
- Develop, implement, and distribute policies and procedures for a risk analysis and risk management plan, the regular review of activity within their information systems, an authentication process to provide safeguards to data and records, and security measures to protect electronic protected health information from unauthorized access when it is being transmitted electronically, and
- Report to HHS within thirty (30) days when workforce members fail to comply with the HIPAA Security Rule.
OCR Warns Other HIPAA-Covered Entities
In the health care sector, hacking is now the greatest threat to the privacy and security of protected health information. OCR’s announcement of the serrlement reports 74 percent (74%) of the breaches reported to OCR in 2021 involved hacking/IT incidents.
The announcement also notes OCR offers an array of resources to help health care organizations bolster their cybersecurity posture and comply with the HIPAA Rules,
The settlement and OCR’s announcement warn other covered entities and business associates to use these and other necessary resources to protect their systems with protected health information from cyber hacking and other breaches.
In conjunction with reminding other covered entities of these resources, the settlement announcement quotes OCR Director Melanie Fontes Rainer as warning, ‘Hackers continue to threaten the privacy and security of patient information held by health care organizations, including our nation’s hospitals, … It is imperative that hospitals and other covered entities and business associates be vigilant in taking robust steps to protect their systems, data, and records, and this begins with understanding their risks, and taking action to prevent, respond to and combat such cyber-attacks. … Cyber security is on all of us, and we must take steps to protect our health care systems from these attacks.”
OCR’s enforcement record confirms these are not idyl threats. Breaches of the Security or Breach Notification Rules often result in significant civil monetary penalty assessments or negotiated settlements to mitigate civil liability exposures arising out of such breaches. See e.g., Clinical Laboratory Pays $25,000 To Settle Potential HIPAA Security Rule Violations (May 25, 2021); Health Insurer Pays $5.1 Million to Settle Data Breach Affecting Over 9.3 Million People (January 15, 2021); Aetna Pays $1,000,000 to Settle Three HIPAA Breaches(October 28, 2020); Health Insurer Pays $6.85 Million to Settle Data Breach Affecting Over 10.4 Million People (September 25, 2020); HIPAA Business Associate Pays $2.3 Million to Settle Breach Affecting Protected Health Information of Over 6 million Individual – (September 23, 2020); Lifespan Pays $1,040,000 to OCR to Settle Unencrypted Stolen Laptop Breach (July 27, 2020); Small Health Care Provider Fails to Implement Multiple HIPAA Security Rule Requirements (July 23, 2020).
Alerts issued by OCR regarding heightened security risks in recent months and a growing tide of highly publicized breaches send a strong warning to other covered entities and their business associates to reconfirm the adequacy of their own HIPAA privacy, security, breach notification and other procedures and protections by among other things:
- Reviewing and monitoring on a documented, ongoing basis the adequacy and susceptibilities of existing practices, policies, safeguards of their own organizations, as well as their business associates and their vendors within the scope of attorney-client privilege taking into consideration data available from OCR, data regarding known or potential susceptibilities within their own operations as well as in the media, and other developments to determine if additional steps are necessary or advisable.
- Updating policies, privacy and other notices, practices, procedures, training and other practices as needed to promote compliance and defensibility.
- Renegotiating and enhancing service provider agreements to detail the specific compliance, audit, oversight and reporting rights, workforce and vendor credentialing and access control, indemnification, insurance, cooperation and other rights and responsibilities of all entities and individuals that use, access or disclose, or provide systems, software or other services or tools that could impact on security; to clarify the respective rights, procedures and responsibilities of each party in regards to compliance audits, investigation, breach reporting, and mitigation; and other relevant matters.
- Verifying and tightening technological and other tracking, documentation and safeguards and controls to the use, access and disclosure of protected health information and systems.
- Conducting well-documented training as necessary to ensure that members of the workforce of each covered entity and business associate understand and are prepared to comply with the expanded requirements of HIPAA, understand their responsibilities and appropriate procedures for reporting and investigating potential breaches or other compliance concerns, and understand as well as are prepared to follow appropriate procedures for reporting and responding to suspected
violations or other indicia of potential security concerns.
- Tracking and reviewing on a systemized, well-documented basis actual and near miss security threats to evaluate, document decision-making and make timely adjustments to policies, practices, training, safeguards and other compliance components as necessary to identify and resolve risks.
- Establishing and providing well-documented monitoring of compliance that includes board level oversight and reporting at least quarterly and sooner in response to potential threat indicators.
- Establishing and providing well-documented timely investigation and redress of reported
violations or other compliance concerns.
- Establishing contingency plans for responding in the event of a breach.
- Establishing a well-documented process for monitoring and updating policies, practices and other efforts in response to changes in risks, practices and requirements.
- Preparing and maintaining a well-documented record of compliance, risk, investigation and other security activities.
- Pursuing other appropriate strategies to enhance the covered entity’s ability to demonstrate its compliance commitment both on paper and in operation.
Because susceptibilities in systems, software and other vendors of business associates, covered entities and their business associates should use care to assess and manage business associate and other vendor associated risks and compliance as well as tighten business associate and other service agreements to promote the improved cooperation, coordination, management and oversight required to comply with the new breach notification and other HIPAA requirements by specifically mapping out these details.
Beyond these HIPAA exposures, breaches and other HIPAA noncompliance carries other liability risks. Leaders of covered entities or their business associates also are cautioned that while HIPAA itself does not generally create any private right of action for victims of breach under HIPAA, breaches may create substantial liability for their organizations or increasingly, organizational leaders. For instance, the Department of Health & Human Services has warned health care providers participating in Medicare or other federal programs and Medicare Advantage health plans that HIPAA compliance is a program term of participation.
Health care providers and health insurers can face liability under state data privacy and breach, negligence or other statutory or common laws. In addition, physicians and other licensed parties may face professional discipline or other professional liability for breaches violating statutory or ethical standards.
Health plans also face a myriad of other exposures from failing to use appropriate cyber safeguards. Plan fiduciaries of employment based health plans covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”} risk liability under ERISA’s fiduciary responsibility rules. The Department of Labor Employee Benefit Security Administration (“EBSA”) now audits the adequacy of the cybersecurity and other HIPAA compliance of health plans and their third party administrators and other business associates as part of EBSA’s oversight and enforcement of ERISA. Department of Labor Assistant Secretary for EBSA Lisa Gomez confirmed audit and enforcement of cybersecurity obligations is a key priority in EBSA’s current work plan in her February 4, 2023 comments to the American bar Association.
Meanwhile, the Securities and Exchange Commission has indicated that it plans to pursue enforcement against leaders of public health care or other public companies that fail to use appropriate care to ensure their organizations comply with privacy and data security obligations.
Furthermore, appropriate cyber security practices also may be advisable elements for organizations to include in their Federal Sentencing Guideline Compliance Programs to mitigate potential organization liability risks under federal electronic crime and related laws.
In the face of these risks and warnings, all covered entities and their business associates should reassess and confirm the adequacy of their and their business associates’ cyber security defenses and breach response preparations.
We hope this update is helpful. For more information about the these or other health or other legal, management or public policy developments, please contact the author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer via e-mail or via telephone at (214) 452 -8297.
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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 health industry and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications.
A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, Vice Chair of the American Bar Association (“ABA”) International Section Life Sciences and Health Committee, Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Scribe for the ABA JCEB Annual Agency Meeting with HHS-OCR, past chair of the the ABA RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group and current co-Chair of its Welfare Benefit Committee, Ms. Stamer is most widely recognized for her decades of pragmatic, leading edge work, scholarship and thought leadership on health, health plan and managed care industry legal, public policy and operational concerns.
Ms. Stamer’s work throughout her 35 year career has focused heavily on working with health care and managed care, health and other employee benefit plan, insurance and financial services and other public and private organizations and their technology, data, and other service providers and advisors domestically and internationally with legal and operational compliance and risk management, performance and workforce management, regulatory and public policy and other legal and operational concerns. As an ongoing component of this work, she regularly advises, represents and defends HIPAA covered entities, business associates and other organizations on HIPAA and other cyber, privacy and data security concerns and has published and spoken extensively on these concerns.
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