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Texas Health and Human Services Commission Pays $1.6 Million HIPAA Penalty

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has imposed a $1.6 million civil monetary penalty (CMP) on Texas Health and Human Services Commission (TX HHSC) for multiple violations of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Rules.

TX HHSC is a state agency that operates supported living centers, regulates nursing and childcare facilities, provides mental health and substance abuse services, and administers hundreds of state programs for people in need of assistance, such as individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities.

OCR launched an investigation following receipt of a breach report from the Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS), a state agency that was reorganized into TX HHSC in September 2017. On June 11, 2015, DADS reported a security incident to OCR which stated that the electronic protected health information (ePHI) of 6,617 individuals had been exposed over the internet. The exposed information included names, addresses, diagnoses, treatment information, Medicaid numbers, and Social Security numbers.

The information was exposed during the migration of an internal CLASS/DBMD application from a private server to a public server. A flaw in the software of the application allowed ePHI to be accessed over the internet without any authentication. As a result of the flaw, private and highly sensitive information could be found and accessed through a Google search.

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TX HHSC was unable to provide documentation to demonstrate compliance with three important provisions of HIPAA Rules. OCR determined that TX HHSC had violated four HIPAA provisions.

  • 45 C.F.R. § 164.308(a)(1 )(ii)(A) – Failure to conduct a comprehensive organization-wide risk analysis to identify all risks to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of PHI
  • 45 C.F.R. § 164.312(a)(1) – Failure to implement access controls. Credentials were not required to access ePHI contained in its CLASS/DBMD
  • 45 C.F.R. § 164.312(b) – Failure to implement audit controls that recorded user access on the public server, which prevented TX HHSC from determining who had accessed ePHI in the application during the time it was exposed.
  • 45 C.F.R. § 164.502(a) – The above failures resulted in an impermissible disclosure of the ePHI of 6,617 individuals.

Under HIPAA, financial penalties are determined based on the level of culpability. OCR determined that the violations fell short of willful neglect and constituted reasonable cause – the second penalty tier. For each of the above classes of HIPAA violation, the minimum penalty for a violation is $1,000 up to a maximum financial penalty of $100,000 per year. The risk analysis failures, access controls failures, and audit control failures spanned from 2013 to 2017, hence the $1.6 million penalty.

“Covered entities need to know who can access protected health information in their custody at all times,” said OCR Director Roger Severino. “No one should have to worry about their private health information being discoverable through a Google search.”

We initially reported on the HIPAA penalty in March 2019 when it appeared that a settlement had been reached between TX HHSC and OCR over the HIPAA violations. The 86th Legislature of the State of Texas had voted to approve the settlement; however, it would appear that the proposed settlement was rejected. OCR issued a Notice of Proposed Determination on July 29, 2019.

TX HHSC did not contest the findings of OCR’s Notice of Proposed Determination and waived the right to a hearing. OCR imposed the CMP on TX HHSC on October 25, 2019.

This is the second HIPAA penalty to be announced by OCR this week. A few days ago, OCR announced a $3 million settlement had been reached with the University of Rochester Medical Center to resolve HIPAA violations related to the loss of unencrypted devices containing ePHI.

The TX HHSC CMP is the seventh HIPAA penalty of 2019. The latest CMP brings the total HIPAA fines for 2019 up to $9,949,000.

Author: Steve Alder is the editor-in-chief of HIPAA Journal. Steve is responsible for editorial policy regarding the topics covered on HIPAA Journal. He is a specialist on healthcare industry legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA and other related legal topics. Steve has developed a deep understanding of regulatory issues surrounding the use of information technology in the healthcare industry and has written hundreds of articles on HIPAA-related topics.