Yesterday’s listserv announcement from the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) brought to mind this question. The post announces the agreement by a Florida company, Advanced Care Hospitalists PL (ACH), to pay $500,000 and adopt a “substantial corrective action plan”. The first alleged HIPAA violation? Patient information, including name, date of birth, and social security number was viewable on the website of ACH’s medical billing vendor, and reported to ACH by a local hospital in 2014.
To add insult (and another alleged HIPAA violation) to injury, according to the HHS Press Release, ACH did not have a business associate agreement (BAA) in place with the vendor, Doctor’s First Choice Billings, Inc. (First Choice), during the period when medical billing services were rendered (an 8-month period running from November of 2011 to June of 2012). Based on the HHS Press Release, it appears that ACH only scrambled to sign a BAA with First Choice in 2014, likely after learning of the website issue. In addition, according to the HHS Press Release, the person hired by ACH to provide the medical billing services used “First Choice’s name and website, but allegedly without any knowledge or permission of First Choice’s owner.”
These allegations are head-spinning, starting with those implicating the “should’ve-been” business associate. First, how does a medical billing company allow an employee or any other individual access to its website without its knowledge or permission? Next, shouldn’t someone at First Choice have noticed that an unauthorized person was posting information on its website back in 2011-2012, or at some point prior to its discovery by an unrelated third party in 2014? Finally, how does a medical billing company (a company that should know, certainly by late 2011, that it’s most likely acting a business associate when it performs medical billing services), not realize that individually identifiable health information and social security numbers are viewable on its website by outsiders?
ACH’s apparent lackadaisical attitude about its HIPAA obligations is equally stunning. What health care provider engaged in electronic billing was not aware of the need to have a BAA in place with a medical billing vendor in 2011? While the Omnibus Rule wasn’t published until January of 2013 (at which point ACH had another chance to recognize its need for a BAA with First Choice), HHS has been publishing FAQs addressing all kinds of business associate-related issues and requirements since 2002.
It seems pretty obvious that ACH should have had a BAA with First Choice, but, in many instances, having a BAA is neither required by HIPAA nor prudent from the perspective of the covered entity. A BAA generally is not necessary if protected health information is not created, received, maintained or transmitted by or to the vendor in connection with the provision of services on behalf of a covered entity, business associate, or subcontractor, and having one in place may backfire. Consider the following scenario:
* Health Plan (HP), thinking it is acting out of an abundance of HIPAA caution, requires all of its vendors to sign BAAs.
* Small Law Firm (SLF) provides legal advice to HP, but does not create, receive, maintain or transmit protected health information in connection with the services it provides on behalf of HP.
* However, SLF signs HP’s BAA at HP’s request and because SLF thinks it might, at some point, expand the scope of legal services it provides to HP to include matters that require it to receive protected health information from HP.
* SLF suffers a ransomware attack that results in some of its data being encrypted, including data received from HP. It reviews HHS’s fact sheet on Ransomware and HIPAA, and realizes that a HIPAA breach may have occurred, since it cannot rule out the possibility that it received protected health information from HP at some point after it signed the BAA and prior to the attack.
* SLF reports the attack to HP as per the BAA. Neither SLF nor HP can rule out the possibility that protected health information of individuals covered by HP was received by SLF at some point and affected by the attack.
HP is now in the position of having to provide breach notifications to individuals and HHS. Had it been more circumspect at the outset, deciding it would only ask SLF to sign a BAA if/when SLF needed protected health information in order to provide legal services on behalf of HP, it may have avoided these HIPAA implications completely.
So while it seems stunning that a health care provider entity such as ACH would have neglected to sign a BAA with First Choice before 2014, having a BAA in place when it is not necessary can create its own problems. Better to constantly ask (and carefully consider): to BAA or not to BAA?