HIPAA Privacy Complaint Results in Federal Criminal Prosecution for First Time
For the first time, a HIPAA privacy complaint filed with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has resulted in federal criminal prosecution.
A complaint was filed with OCR over an impermissible disclosure of a patient’s protected health information by a doctor. The doctor, Richard Alan Kaye of Suffolk, Va., was alleged to have shared PHI with the patient’s employer without consent from the patient – A violation of the HIPAA Privacy Rule.
The case against Kaye has been referred to the Department of Justice, which has pressed charges. While OCR has referred more than 500 HIPAA violation cases in the past, this if the first time that an investigation of a privacy complaint has resulted in criminal prosecution.
Kaye had previously worked at Sentara Obici Hospital in Suffolk, Va., as Medical Director of its Psychiatric Care Center. The patient had been enrolled in a mental health treatment program at the hospital and Kaye treated and subsequently discharged the patient. On discharge, Kaye stated that the patient was not a threat to the public.
Federal prosecutors allege Kaye shared PHI with the patient’s employer “under the false pretenses that the patient was a serious and imminent threat to the safety of the public, when in fact he knew that the patient was not such a threat.”
While it was previously possible for egregious HIPAA violations to result in criminal prosecutions for HIPAA covered entities, filing charges against individuals was problematic. When individuals were discovered to have violated the privacy of patients, and the violations warranted criminal prosecution, it was necessary to file charges under the aiding and abetting theory – The abuse of an individual’s position to violate HIPAA Rules.
However, the 2009 Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH Act) provided further clarification on criminal prosecutions for HIPAA violations, and made the process of prosecuting individuals for HIPAA privacy violations more straightforward.
If cases are investigated and OCR determines HIPAA Rules have been violated by covered entities, the cases are typically resolved by OCR, often via settlements. However, if individuals are alleged to have violated HIPAA Rules, criminal penalties may be appropriate. In such cases, OCR can refer the cases to the Department of Justice, the federal attorney general, and/or state attorneys general to pursue criminal charges against those individuals.
While criminal cases have been filed against individuals who violated HIPAA Rules and impermissibly disclosed PHI, the uncertainty of pursuing cases against individuals prior to the passing of the HITECH Act dissuaded federal prosecutors from pursuing cases. Since the HITECH Act was passed, there have been referrals of cases, although this is understood to be the first time that the Department of Justice has actively pursued criminal charges against an individual following the referral of a privacy complaint by OCR.
There is no private cause of action in HIPAA. While private citizens can file complaints with the OCR over alleged violations of HIPAA Rules, they are not permitted to file lawsuits against covered entities for HIPAA violations. The lack of criminal penalties for HIPAA violations may have dissuaded patients from filing complaints. Now the Department of Justice is taking action against an individual for an egregious HIPAA privacy violation, it may encourage more patients to file complaints with OCR.
This DOJ case shows federal authorities are now taking HIPAA Privacy Rule violations much more seriously. OCR is also training state attorneys general on HIPAA enforcement. After state attorney generals have received training, it is expected they too will take a more aggressive stance against covered entities that have violated the privacy of state residents.