Failure to Terminate Former Employee’s Access Rights Results in $202,400 HIPAA Fine for New Haven, CT

The City of New Haven, Connecticut has agreed to pay a $202,400 financial penalty to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights to resolve a HIPAA violation case.

An OCR investigation was launched in May 2017 following receipt of a data breach notification from New Haven on January 24, 2017. OCR investigated whether the data breach was linked to potential violations of HIPAA Rules.

During the investigation, OCR discovered the New Haven Health Department had terminated an employee on July 27, 2016 during her probationary period. The former employee returned to the New Haven Heath Department on July 27, 2016 with her union representative and used her work key to access her old office, where she locked herself inside with her union representative.

While in her office, the former employee logged into her old computer using her username and password and copied information from her computer onto a USB drive. She also removed personal items and documents from the office, and then exited the premises. A file on the computer contained the protected health information of 498 patients, including names, addresses, dates of birth, race/ethnicity, gender, and sexually transmitted disease test results. That file was downloaded onto the USB drive. The actions of the former employee were witnessed by an intern.

OCR investigators also determined that the former employee had shared her login credentials with an intern, who continued to use those credentials to access PHI on the network after the employee had been terminated.

Had the New Haven Health Department deactivated the former employee’s login credentials at the time of her termination, a data breach would have been prevented. If all users had been given their own, unique login credentials, it would have been possible to accurately determine the system activity of each individual and identify their interactions with electronic protected health information.

OCR concluded that between December 1, 2014 to December 31, 2018, HIPAA Privacy Rule policies and procedures had not been implemented, New Haven had not implemented procedures for terminating access to ePHI when the employment of, or other arrangement with, a workforce member ends, and New Haven had failed to assign unique usernames and passwords to track user identity.

An accurate organization-wide risk assessment had not been performed to identify the potential risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of electronic protected health information and there had been an impermissible disclosure of the PHI of 498 individuals.

In addition to the financial penalty, the City of New Haven has agreed to adopt a corrective action plan to address all areas of noncompliance. OCR will monitor the City of New Haven for HIPAA compliance for two years from the date of the resolution agreement.

“Medical providers need to know who in their organization can access patient data at all times. When someone’s employment ends, so must their access to patient records,” said OCR Director Roger Severino.

The settlement is the 4th to be announced by OCR in October 2020, and the 15th HIPAA financial penalty of 2020.

Author: Steve Alder has many years of experience as a journalist, and comes from a background in market research. He is a specialist on legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA. Steve holds a B.Sc. from the University of Liverpool.