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HIPAA, HITECH & HIT Legal Issues, Developments and Other Pertinent Information Relating To The Creation, Use and Exchange of Electronic Health Records

The Parade of Major PHI Breaches Marches Onward – What Lessons Can Be Learned from Comments by OCR’s Reviewing Stand?

Posted in Privacy & Security

This blog series has been following breaches of Protected Health Information (“PHI”) that have been reported on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) list (the “HHS List”) of breaches of unsecured PHI affecting 500 or more individuals (the “List Breaches”). Currently HHS has posted 435 List Breaches affecting marchers in the ever-lengthening parade, although the number of marchers has remained unchanged for several weeks.

The most recent posting on this blog series by my partner Elizabeth Litten, Esq., discussed a recent presentation by Linda Sanches, Office of Civil Rights ("OCR") Senior Advisor and the lead on HIPAA Compliance Audits, on the progress of the 2012 HIPAA Privacy and Security Audit Program.  As pointed out in the earlier posting, the presentation by Ms. Sanches included some general tips that covered entities (“CEs”) and business associates ("BAs") can use to reduce the likelihood of HIPAA violations, one of which is PHI security breaches.

 

The HHS List includes additional focused guidance from OCR that CEs and BAs can use in efforts to avoid, or in the event of, a PHI security breach (even if it does not rise to the level of a List Breach) in the form of  brief summaries of the breach cases that OCR has investigated and closed. To date, the HHS List has posted approximately 93 summaries (“Summaries”) out of the 435 postings respecting marchers in the Breach Parade (which include some multiple postings of List Breaches where an alleged breach by one BA caused a number of CEs to have List Breaches). Of the 93 List Breaches for which Summaries have been prepared by OCR, 18 (approximately 20%) were reported as involving BAs.  

 

These Summaries can provide valuable clues for CEs and BAs on how to deal with a HIPAA security breach. One example is contained in a Summary respecting a List Breach reported on January 29, 2010 by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans (“Thrivent”) in Wisconsin. The List Breach, which did not report an involved BA, related to a theft of laptops that contained the PHI of approximately 9,400 individuals. (The original report by Thrivent had stated that approximately 9,500 individuals had been affected.) The OCR Summary included the following statement:

 

The protected health information involved in the breach included name, address, date of birth, social security number, prescription drugs, medical condition, age, weight, etc. Thrivent provided OCR with additional controls to remedy causes of security breach at various stages of implementation. The actions taken by the CE prior to OCR’s formal investigation brought the CE into compliance.

 

OCR clearly viewed it as noteworthy and commendable that Thrivent had voluntarily taken necessary steps for compliance before OCR conducted its investigation. That should be an alert for those who suffer HIPAA breaches that all appropriate and reasonable remedial measures should be undertaken promptly to demonstrate and document compliance before OCR comes knocking on the door of the CE. This blog series will continue to review various of the OCR Summaries as to guidance that they may contain respecting PHI security breaches.