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OCR Head Expects Major HIPAA Settlement for a Big, Juicy, Egregious Breach in 2017

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Roger Severino, the Director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has stated his main enforcement priority for 2017 is to find a “big, juicy, egregious” HIPAA breach and to use it as an example for other healthcare organizations on the dangers of failing to follow HIPAA Rules.

When deciding on which cases to pursue, OCR considers the opportunity to use the case as an educational tool to remind covered entities of the need to comply with specific aspects of HIPAA Rules.

At the recent ‘Safeguarding Health Information’ conference run by OCR and NIST, Severino explained that “I have to balance that law enforcement instinct with the educational component that we do.” Severino went on to say, “I really want to make sure people come into compliance without us having to enforce. I want to underscore that.”

Severino did not explain what aspect of noncompliance with HIPAA Rules OCR is hoping to highlight with its next big, juicy settlement, although no healthcare organization is immune to a HIPAA penalty if they are found to have violated HIPAA Rules. Severino said, “Just because you are small doesn’t mean we’re not looking and that you are safe if you are violating the law. You won’t be.”

Severino also explained that the number of complaints OCR is now receiving is colossal. More than 20,000 complaints about security incidents and privacy violations are received each year. OCR has many staff issuing technical assistance to help covered entities with their compliance programs.  The goal is to significantly reduce the number of complaints and enjoy a “culture of compliance” throughout the country.

The majority of HIPAA violations are resolved through technical assistance and voluntary compliance, but financial penalties are appropriate for egregious breaches of HIPAA Rules.

Already this year, OCR has agreed eight settlements with covered entities to resolve HIPAA violations discovered during investigations of complaints and data breaches and has issued one civil monetary penalty:

2017 HIPAA Enforcement Actions

  • Memorial Healthcare System – $5.5 million
  • Children’s Medical Center of Dallas- $3.2 million (Civil monetary penalty)
  • Cardionet – $2.5 million
  • Memorial Hermann Health System (MHHS) – $2.4 million
  • MAPFRE Life Insurance Company of Puerto Rico – $2.2 million
  • Presense Health – $475,000
  • Metro Community Provider Network – $400,000
  • Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center Inc. – $387,000
  • The Center for Children’s Digestive Health – $31,000

The largest HIPAA settlement of 2017 was agreed with Memorial Healthcare System – a health system consisting of 6 hospitals and various other facilities in South Florida. The settlement of $5.5 million resolved potential violations of HIPAA Rules relating to the impermissible accessing of ePHI by employees and the impermissible disclosure of PHI to affiliated physician office staff.  The settlement underscored the importance of audit controls and the need to carefully control who has access to the ePHI.

The second largest HIPAA settlement of 2017 was for $2.5 million and resolved multiple potential violations of HIPAA Rules that contributed to a breach of 1,391 patient records. The incident involved the theft of an unencrypted laptop computer from healthcare services provider Cardionet. The settlement underscored the importance of conducting a comprehensive risk assessment and of addressing vulnerabilities to the confidentiality of ePHI.

In May, OCR announced a $2.4 million settlement with Memorial Hermann Health System. The settlement resolved HIPAA violations discovered during the investigation of an impermissible disclosure of a patient’s ePHI in a press release and during subsequent meetings with advocacy groups and state representatives.

In January, a $2.2 million settlement was agreed with MAPFRE Life Insurance Company of Puerto Rico. The incident that triggered the investigation involved the theft of an unencrypted pen drive containing the PHI of 2,209 individuals. The investigation revealed multiple violations of HIPAA Rules including the failure to conduct a thorough and accurate risk assessment, the failure to implement a security awareness training program, the failure to encrypt ePHI and the failure to implement appropriate policies to safeguard ePHI.

The civil monetary penalty against Children’s Medical Center of Dallas was issued for the impermissible disclosure of ePHI and multiple failures to comply with the HIPAA Security Rule over several years. The settlement resolves HIPAA failures that contributed to a breach of 3,800 records involving the loss of an unencrypted Blackberry device in 2009 and the loss of an unencrypted laptop containing 2,462 records in 2013.

There has been a period of quiet on the enforcement front over the summer, with the last settlement announced in May. The fall is likely to see more settlements announced and this year looks on track to be another record year for HIPAA enforcement. The big, juicy egregious breach that OCR is looking for may prove to be the largest HIPAA penalty yet.

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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