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Impermissible Disclosure of HIV Status to Employer Results in $387,000 HIPAA Penalty

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The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has announced a new HIPAA settlement to resolve violations of the HIPAA Privacy Rule.

St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center Inc., has paid OCR $387,200 to resolve potential HIPAA violations discovered during an OCR investigation of a complaint about an impermissible disclosure of PHI.

In September 2014, OCR received a complaint about a potential privacy violation involving a patient of St. Luke’s Spencer Cox Center for Health. In the complaint, it was alleged that a member of St Luke’s staff violated the privacy of a patient by faxing protected health information to the individual’s employer.

The information in the fax was highly sensitive, including the patient’s sexual orientation, HIV status, sexually transmitted diseases, mental health diagnosis, details of physical abuse suffered, medical care and medications. Instead of faxing the information, the data should have been sent to a personal post box as requested.

The investigation revealed that the incident was not the only time that the HIPAA Privacy Rule had been violation in such a fashion. A similar incident occurred nine months previously when a patient’s PHI was sent via fax to an office where he volunteered.

The Privacy Rule violations in both cases were particularly serious due to the highly sensitive nature of information that was disclosed. In the resolution agreement, OCR said the impermissible disclosures were egregious.

HIPAA Rules require covered entities to safeguard patients’ protected health information at all times. However, the investigation revealed that St Luke’s had failed to do that on two occasions, violating 45 C.F.R. § 164.530(c)(2)(i). Further, after the first impermissible disclosure, St Luke’s failed to address vulnerabilities in their compliance program to prevent further impermissible disclosures from occurring. Had those vulnerabilities been addressed, the second privacy violation may have been avoided.

In addition to paying OCR $387,200, St Luke’s is required to adopt a corrective action plan. The CAP involves reviewing and updating policies and procedures covering allowable uses and disclosures of PHI and training staff members on policy and procedural updates.

OCR issued a press release announcing the HIPAA settlement in which OCR director Roger Severino said “Individuals cannot trust in a health care system that does not appropriately safeguard their most sensitive PHI,” explaining “Covered entities and business associates have the responsibility under HIPAA to both identify and actually implement these safeguards.” OCR consideration the nature of the breach and the extent of the harm caused when deciding an appropriate settlement amount.

May is not yet over, but already there have been nine HIPAA settlements between OCR and covered entities to resolve HIPAA violations discovered during the investigation of complaints and data breaches. At the current rate of almost two settlements a month, OCR will double last year’s record breaking number of HIPAA enforcement penalties. The increase in HIPAA penalties shows that OCR is taking a much harder line on covered entities that fail to comply with HIPAA Rules.

Two of the most recent penalties have resulted from complaints involving HIPAA violations relating to one or two patients. It is no longer just large scale data breaches that merit financial penalties. Any severe violation of HIPAA Rules can result in a HIPAA fine.

Author: HIPAA Journal

HIPAA Journal provides the most comprehensive coverage of HIPAA news anywhere online, in addition to independent advice about HIPAA compliance and the best practices to adopt to avoid data breaches, HIPAA violations and regulatory fines.

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