OCR Fines Allergy Practice $125,000 for Impermissible PHI Disclosure

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has fined a Hartford allergy practice $125,000 over alleged violations of the HIPAA Privacy Rule.

On October 6, 2015, OCR received a copy of a civil rights complaint that had been filed with the Department of Justice (DOJ). The complainant alleged Allergy Associates of Hartford – A Connecticut healthcare provider that specializes in treating patients with allergies – had impermissibly disclosed her protected health information to a TV reporter.

The complainant had previously contacted a local TV station after she had been turned away from the allergy practice because of her service animal. The TV reporter subsequently contacted the practice seeking comment. A physician at the practice spoke to the reporter and impermissibly disclosed some of the patient’s protected health information.

OCR’s investigation confirmed there had been an impermissible disclosure of PHI, in violation of the HIPAA Privacy Rule – 45 C.F.R. § 164.502(a).

The physician in question had already been advised by the practice’s Privacy Officer to ignore the reporter’s request for comment or to respond with ‘no comment.’ However, the physician chose to speak with the reporter and disclosed some of the patient’s PHI. OCR viewed the disclosure as ‘a reckless disregard for the patient’s privacy rights.’

After Allergy Associates was contacted by OCR about the privacy breach, Allergy Associates failed to apply appropriate sanctions against the physician concerned for a violation of the practice’s privacy policies and procedures, as is required by the HIPAA Privacy Rule – 45 C.F.R. §164.530(e)(l).

“When a patient complains about a medical practice, doctors cannot respond by disclosing private patient information to the media,” explained OCR Director Roger Severino. “Because egregious disclosures can lead to substantial penalties, covered entities need to pay close attention to HIPAA’s privacy rules, especially when responding to press inquiries.”

Allergy Associates agreed to settle the case with no admission of liability. In addition to paying a financial penalty of $125,000, Allergy Associates has agreed to adopt a robust corrective action plan which includes two years of OCR monitoring the practice’s compliance with HIPAA Rules.

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.