Memorial Hermann Health System Hit with $2.4 Million HIPAA Fine

Memorial Hermann Health System has agreed to settle potential HIPAA Privacy Rule violations with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) for $2.4 million. The settlement stems from an impermissible disclosure on a press release issued by MHHS in September 2015.

Memorial Hermann Health System (MHHS) is a 16-hospital health system based in Southeast Texas, serving patients in the Greater Houston area. In September, a patient visited a MHHS clinic and presented a fraudulent identification card to hospital staff.

The fraudulent ID card was identified as such by hospital staff, law enforcement was notified and the patient was arrested. The hospital disclosed the name of the patient to law enforcement, which is allowable under HIPAA Rules.

However, the following action taken by the hospital was a violation of the HIPAA Privacy Rule. MHHS issued a press release about the incident but included the patients name in the title of the press release. That press release was approved before release by MHHS senior management, even though naming the patient constituted an impermissible disclosure of PHI.

The incident was widely reported in the media and a complaint was filed with OCR, prompting an investigation. The investigation revealed that the press release had been distributed to fifteen media outlets. On three occasions following the issuing of the press release, the patient’s identity was disclosed in meetings with advocacy groups, a state senator and state representatives. A statement in which the patient was named was also published on the MHHS website.

These unauthorized disclosures, which occurred between September 15 and October 1, 2015 constituted a knowing and intentional failure to safeguard the PHI of the patient. MHHS was also discovered to have failed to document the sanctions imposed against the members of staff who violated the HIPAA Privacy Rule, as is required by HIPAA (45 C.F .R. § 164.530( e )(2)).

In addition to the sizable payment to OCR, Memorial Hermann Health System has agreed to adopt a corrective action plan that requires policies and procedures to be updated and staff trained to prevent further impermissible disclosures of PHI. All MHHS facilities must also attest that they understand the allowable disclosures and uses of PHI.

HIPAA penalties are often issued for large scale breaches of PHI stemming from violations of HIPAA Rules. While OCR has agreed settlements with HIPAA-covered entities for breaches of fewer than 500 records in the past, settlements are typically reserved for large breaches of PHI caused by HIPAA violations. This is the first settlement to be agreed with a HIPAA-covered entity for a breach of a single patient’s PHI.

OCR Director Roger Severino issued a statement about the settlement saying “Senior management should have known that disclosing a patient’s name on the title of a press release was a clear HIPAA Privacy violation that would induce a swift OCR response.” He went on to explain that “This case reminds us that organizations can readily cooperate with law enforcement without violating HIPAA, but that they must nevertheless continue to protect patient privacy when making statements to the public and elsewhere.”

This is the eighth HIPAA settlement to be announced by OCR in 2017. In 2016, a record year for HIPAA settlements, there were 12 settlements reached with covered entities to resolve HIPAA violations and one CMP issued. At this rate, 2017 looks set to be another record breaking year.

The sharp increase in HIPAA penalties should serve as a warning to covered entities that any violation of HIPAA Rules could result in a substantial financial penalty.

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.