In our most recent post, the Top 5 Common HIPAA Mistakes to Avoid in 2018, we noted that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has recently published guidance on disclosing protected health information (PHI) related to overdose victims. OCR published this and other guidance within the last two months in response to the Opioid Crisis gripping the nation and confusion regarding when and to whom PHI of patient’s suffering from addiction or mental illness may be disclosed.

Pills and capsules on white backgroundTo make the guidance easily accessible to patients and health care professionals, OCR published two webpages, one dedicated to patients and their family members and the other dedicated to professionals.

  • Patients and their family members can find easy-to-read commentary addressing the disclosure of PHI in situations of overdose, incapacity or other mental health issues here.
  • Physicians and other health care professionals can find similar fact sheets tailored to their roles as covered entities here.
  • OCR also recently issued a two-page document summarizing its guidance on when health care professionals may disclose PHI related to opioid abuse and incapacity [accessible here].

The main points from this guidance include:

  1. If a patient has the capacity to make decisions regarding his or her health care, a health care professional may not generally share any PHI with family, friends or others involved in the patient’s care (or payment for care), unless the patient consents to such disclosure.  However, a health care professional may disclose PHI if there is a serious and imminent threat of harm to the patient’s health and the provider in good faith believes that the individual to whom the information is disclosed would be reasonably able (or in a position) to prevent or lessen such threat. According to OCR, in the context of opioid abuse, this rule allows a physician to disclose information about the patient’s opioid abuse to any individual to whom the physician in good faith believes could reasonably prevent or lessen the harm that could be caused by the patient’s continued opioid abuse following discharge.
  2. If the patient is incapacitated or unconscious, HIPAA allows health care professionals to disclose certain PHI to family and close friends without a patient’s permission where (i) the individuals are involved in the care of the patient, (ii) the health care professional determines that disclosing the information is in the best interests of the patient, and (iii) the PHI shared is directly related to the family or friend’s involvement in the patient’s health care (or payment for such health care). As an example, OCR clarified that a physician may, in his or her professional judgment, share PHI regarding an opioid overdose and related medical information with the parents of someone who is incapacitated due to an overdose.
  3. OCR also addressed the difficult situation where a patient is severely intoxicated or unconscious, but may regain sufficient capacity to make health care decisions several hours after arriving in the emergency room.   In such situations, HIPAA would allow a physician or nurse to share PHI related to the patient’s overdose and medical condition with the patient’s family or close personal friends while the patient is incapacitated, so long as the nurse or doctor believes that it is in the patient’s best interest to do so and the information shared with the family member or friend is related to the individual’s involvement in the patient’s health care.

OCR published similar guidance, available at the above websites, regarding the disclosure of PHI related to the mental health of a patient.  Included in that guidance is clarification that HIPAA does not prohibit treating physicians from sharing PHI of a patient with a mental illness or substance use disorder for treatment purposes, except in the case of psychotherapy notes.

However, it is important to understand that OCR’s guidance on these issues does not supersede state laws or other federal laws or rules of medical ethics that would apply to disclosure of a patient’s PHI, including the federal confidentiality regulations [located at 42 CFR Part 2] pertaining to patient records maintained in connection with certain federally-assisted substance use disorder treatment programs.  The “Part 2” regulations (as well as state patient confidentiality laws that are more restrictive than HIPAA) could prohibit some or all of the disclosures which OCR has now clarified are permitted under HIPAA.

If you have a question regarding how this new guidance may affect your practice, please contact a knowledgeable attorney.

Heading into its 22nd year, HIPAA continues to be misunderstood and misapplied by many, including health care industry professionals who strive for (or at least claim the mantle of) HIPAA compliance. Here is my “top 5” list of the most frequent, and most frustrating, HIPAA misperceptions seen during 2017:

  1. “If I’m using or disclosing protected health information (PHI) for health care operations purposes, I don’t need a Business Associate Agreement.”

Yes, HIPAA allows PHI to be used or disclosed for treatment, payment and health care operations purposes, but the term “health care operations” is defined to include specific activities of the covered entity performing them. In addition, the general provision permitting use or disclosure for health care operations purposes (45 C.F.R. 164.506(c)) allows such use or disclosure for the covered entity’s “own” health care operations. So if the covered entity (or business associate) is looking to a third party to perform these activities (and the activities involve the use or disclosure of PHI), a Business Associate Agreement is needed.

  1. “I don’t need to worry about HIPAA if I’m only disclosing a patient’s/member’s telephone number, since that’s not PHI.”

If the data disclosed was ever PHI, it’s still PHI (unless it has been de-identified in accordance with 45 C.F.R. 164.514). For example, if data is received by a health care provider and relates to the provision of care to patient (e.g., as a phone number listed on a patient intake form), it’s PHI – even though, as a stand-alone data element, it doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the patient’s health. Unless the patient has signed a HIPAA authorization allowing the disclosure of the phone number to a third party vendor, the vendor receiving the phone number from the provider to perform patient outreach on behalf of the provider is a Business Associate.

  1. “When a doctor leaves a practice, she can take her patients’ medical records with her.”

This is not automatic, particularly if the practice is the covered entity responsible for maintaining the records and the patient has not expressly allowed the disclosure of his or her records to the departing doctor. In most cases, the practice entity transmits health information in electronic form in connection with a HIPAA transaction and acts as the covered entity health care provider responsible for HIPAA compliance. The patient can access his or her records and direct that they be sent to the departing physician (see guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on individual’s access rights), and if the patient shows up in the departing doctor’s new office, the practice can share the patient’s PHI under the “treatment” exception. If the practice wants the departing doctor to maintain the records of patients she treated while part of the practice, it can enter a records custodian agreement and Business Associate Agreement with the departing doctor.

  1. “I can disclose PHI under the “sales exception” to anyone involved in due diligence related to the sale of my health care practice/facility without getting a Business Associate Agreement.”

HIPAA prohibits the sale of PHI, but excluded from this prohibition is “the sale, transfer, merger, or consolidation of all or part of the covered entity and for related due diligence” as described in the definition of health care operations. The definition of health care operations, in turn, includes the “sale, transfer, merger, or consolidation of all or part of the covered entity with another covered entity, or an entity that following such activity will become a covered entity and due diligence related to such activity.”  This “sales exception” is a bit vague and the cross-referencing of other regulations adds to the confusion, but the fact that disclosing PHI in connection with due diligence related to a possible sale of a covered entity is not prohibited as a “sale” does not mean it’s permitted without regard to other HIPAA requirements and protections. Attorneys, consultants, banks, brokers and even potential buyers should consider whether they are acting as business associates, and careful buyers and sellers may want to require Business Associate Agreements with those accessing PHI.

  1. “If I’m treating an overdose victim [or other unconscious or incapacitated person], I can’t share his/her PHI with family members or caregivers.”

The HHS Office for Civil Rights recently published guidance to clarify that HIPAA does not prohibit health care professionals from sharing information with family members and others in crisis situations, such as those involving overdose victims. I blogged on a related topic, involving the nightclub shooting tragedy in Orlando, Florida, back in 2016. The bottom line is that HIPAA allows the disclosure of PHI in two circumstances that are often forgotten: (1) where the patient is unconscious or incapacitated and the provider believes sharing information with family and close friends involved in the patient’s care is in the best interests of the patient; and (2) where the provider believes that sharing information will prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the patient’s health or safety.  More stringent laws may apply, such as those governing substance use disorder treatment records created or maintained by certain federally-assisted substance use disorder treatment providers or state laws, but HIPAA permits providers to exercise discretion in crisis situations.

Elizabeth G. Litten, Partner, Fox Rothschild LLPOn November 9, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in the case of Emma Gayle Weaver, etc. v. Stephen C. Myers, M.D., et al., that the right to privacy under the Florida Constitution does not end upon an individual’s death. Fox partner and HIPAA Privacy & Security Officer Elizabeth Litten recently reacted to the decision in an article in Data Guidance. She noted the decision’s compatibility with HIPAA regulations concerning the protected health information of a deceased patient. She also discussed certain elements of the Florida statutes that were deemed unconstitutional by the court, and how they differ from HIPAA’s judicial and administrative proceedings disclosure rules.

We invite you to read the article and Elizabeth’s remarks.

Long gone are the days when social media consisted solely of Myspace and Facebook, accessible only by logging in through a desktop computer at home or personal laptop. With every single social media platform readily available on personal cellular devices, HIPAA violations through social media outlets are becoming a frequent problem for healthcare providers and individual employees alike. In fact, social media platforms like Snapchat® and Instagram® that offer users the opportunity to post “stories” or send their friends temporary “snaps” seem to be a large vehicle for HIPAA violations, specifically amongst the millennial generation.

Megaphone and social media illustrationIn a recent poll by CNBC of the younger-end of the millennial generation, CNBC found that a majority of teens ranked Snapchat and Instagram among their top three favorite apps.  One teen claimed that they enjoyed the “instant gratification” of having a quick conversation, and another teen even stated that “Snapchat is a good convenient way to talk to friends (sharing pictures) but you can say things you would regret later because they disappear (I don’t do that though).”

This dangerous and erroneous mentality, while prevalent in teens, exists to some extent among the younger generation of nurses, residents, and other employees working for healthcare providers. With just a few taps and swipes, an employee can post a seemingly innocuous disclosure of PHI. Interns and residents of the younger generation may innocently upload a short-term post (be it a picture for two-seconds or an eight-second long video) of a busy hospital room or even an innocent “selfie” without realizing that there is visible and identifiable PHI in the corner. Two major categories of HIPAA violations have become apparent to me in relation to Snapchat and Instagram Stories and HIPAA: (1) The innocent poster, as described above, who does not realize there is PHI in their post; or (2) The poster who knows that their picture or video could constitute a HIPAA violation, but posts it anyway because they think it’s “temporary”.

The first category of violators are employees who do not realize that they’re violating HIPAA but can still be punished for such behavior. Think of a resident deciding to post a picture on their “Snapchat story” of a cluttered desk during a hectic day at work, not realizing that there are sensitive documents in clear view. Again, whether the resident meant to or not, he or she still violated HIPAA.

The second category of violators think that they’re safe from HIPAA violations, but don’t realize that their posts may not be as temporary as they think. Let us imagine a nursing assistant, working at an assisted-living facility, “snapping” a video of an Alzheimer’s patient because the patient “was playing tug of war with her and she thought it was funny.”  The story only lasts 24 hours on the nursing assistant’s Snapchat “story”, but it is still a clear breach of HIPAA. In this case (a true story), the nursing assistant was fired from the facility and a criminal complaint was filed against her.

Violations in this category do not even need to be as severe as the one in the scenario with the nursing assistant. An employee at a hospital taking a “snap” with one of their favorite patients and sending it to just one friend on Snapchat directly (instead of posting it on their “story”) is a violation because that friend could easily take a screenshot of the “snap”. In fact, any “snap” is recordable by a receiving party; all the receiving party would have to do is press and hold the home button in conjunction with the side button on their iPhone. Voila, now a third-party has PHI saved on their phone, and worse yet, that third-party can distribute the PHI to the world on any number of social media outlets.

Snapchat posts and Instagram stories are not temporary. In fact, in 2014, Snapchat experienced a security breach that released 100,000 Snapchat photos.  The hack – cleverly called “The Snappening” – involved hackers who released a vast database of intercepted Snapchat photos and videos that they had been amassing for years.  In that instance, the hackers acquired the files from a third-party site called “Snapsave.com”, which allowed users to send and receive “snaps” from a desktop computer and stored them on their servers. Snapchat argued back then that it was not in fact their own server which was hacked, but currently the app does allow users to save “snaps” on their phone and on the application before sending them to their friends or stories. This change was made in 2016. Where are those pictures being saved? Could hackers get their hands on them?

The appeal of “instant gratifications” and “temporary conversations” is what makes social media platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram dangerous to healthcare providers. To avoid HIPAA violations of this nature, it is important to inform and educate employees, especially of the millennial generation, of the dangers of posting pictures that they think are temporary. I have an anonymous friend at the age of 26 who is a resident at a hospital that completely disabled her ability to access G-mail through her phone. While this method is a severe solution to a growing issue, and not absolutely necessary, healthcare providers should definitely consider other creative ways to keep their younger employees off their social media apps.

Individuals who have received notice of a HIPAA breach are often offered free credit monitoring services for some period of time, particularly if the protected health information involved included social security numbers.  I have not (yet) received such a notice, but was concerned when I learned about the massive Equifax breach (see here to view a post on this topic on our Privacy Compliance and Data Security blog).

The Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Information page sums it up well:

If you have a credit report, there’s a good chance that you’re one of the 143 million American consumers whose sensitive personal information was exposed in a data breach at Equifax… .”

I read the news reports this morning, and decided to go on the Equifax site, equifaxsecurity2017.com, to see if my information may have been affected and to sign up for credit file monitoring and identify theft protection (the services are free to U.S. consumers, whether or not affected by the breach, for one year).

The Equifax site describes the breach and lets users click on a “Potential Impact” tab to find out whether their information “may have been impacted” by the breach. Users can find out by clicking on the “Check Potential Impact” link and following these steps:

  1. Click on the below link, “Check Potential Impact,” and provide your last name and the last six digits of your Social Security number.
  2. Based on that information, you will receive a message indicating whether your personal information may have been impacted by this incident.
  3. Regardless of whether your information may have been impacted, we will provide you the option to enroll in TrustedID Premier. You will receive an enrollment date. You should return to this site and follow the “How do I enroll?” instructions below on or after that date to continue the enrollment and activation process. The enrollment period ends on Tuesday, November 21, 2017.

Before satisfying my curiosity, though, I decided to click on the “Terms of Use”, that too-rarely-used link typically included at the bottom of a webpage that sets forth the quid pro quo of using a website. Perhaps it was because my law partner (and the firm’s Chief Privacy Officer), Mark McCreary, has instilled some cautiousness in me, or because I wondered if there might be a catch. Why would Equifax offer a free year of credit monitoring to everyone, even those not affected by the breach? What would Equifax get in return?

I skimmed the “Product Agreement and Terms of Use”, noted the bolded text requiring arbitration of disputes and waiving my right to participate in a class action, but wasn’t concerned enough to resist the urge to find out if my information was affected.

I then followed the “Getting Started” process by following the TrustedID Premier link, and quickly received a notice stating that my information “may have been impacted” and that I could enroll on September 11, 2017 (my “designated enrollment date”).

Not more than a couple of hours later, I came across an article warning of the legal rights consumers give up by signing up on Equifax’s website. The article describes the arbitration clause in the Terms of Use provisions, and reports on New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s tweet stating that the arbitration provision is “unacceptable and unenforceable”. The article also reports that, today, Equifax updated the Terms of Use language to include a new provision allowing a user to write to Equifax to opt-out of the arbitration provision within 30 days of the date the user first accepts the Product Agreement and Terms of Use.

My curiosity got the best of me and I now know I’m on the “affected persons” list, but I haven’t yet signed up for my free TrustedID Premier credit monitoring service. I have the weekend to decide whether to sign up for the service, and 30 days from Monday (if I actually sign up for the service) to decide whether to accept the “cost” of agreeing to binding arbitration.

 

In some respects, HIPAA has had a design problem from its inception. HIPAA is well known today as the federal law that requires protection of individually identifiable health information (and, though lesser-known, individual access to health information), but privacy and security were practically after-thoughts when HIPAA was enacted back in 1996. HIPAA (the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act) was originally described as an act:

To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to improve portability and continuity of health insurance coverage in the group and individual markets, to combat waste, fraud, and abuse in health insurance and health care delivery, to promote the use of medical savings accounts, to improve access to long-term care services and coverage, to simplify the administration of health insurance, and for other purposes.”

The privacy of individually identifiable health information was one of those “other purposes” only peripherally included in the 1996 act. Privacy protection was to be a follow-up, a “to-do” checklist item for the future. HIPAA directed the Secretary of Health and Human Services to recommend privacy standards to specified congressional committees within a year of enactment, and, if Congress did not enact privacy legislation within 3 years of enactment, the Secretary was to proceed with the promulgation of privacy regulations. Security was a bit more urgent, at least in the context of electronic health transactions such as claims, enrollment, eligibility, payment, and coordination of benefits. HIPAA required the Secretary to adopt standards for the security of electronic health information systems within 18 months of enactment.

This historical context casts some light on why our 2017-era electronic health records (EHR) systems often lack interoperability and yet are vulnerable to security breaches. HIPAA may be partially to blame, since it was primarily designed to make health insurance more portable and to encourage health insurers and providers to conduct transactions electronically. Privacy and security were the “oh, yeah, that too” add-ons to be fully addressed once electronic health information transactions were underway and EHR systems needed to support them already up and running. Since 1996, EHRs have developed at a clunky provider-by-provider (or health system-by-health system) and patient encounter-by-patient encounter basis, not only making them less accurate and efficient, but vulnerable to privacy and security lapses. (Think of the vast quantity of patient information breached when a hospital’s EHR or a health plan’s claims data base is hacked.)

This past June, I participated on a California Israel Medical Technology Summit panel discussing privacy and security issues. An audience member asked the panel whether we thought blockchain technology was the answer to HIPAA and other privacy and security-related legal requirements. I didn’t have a good answer, thinking “isn’t that the technology used to build Bitcoin, the payment system used by data hackers everywhere?”

This past July, Ritesh Gandotra, a director of global outsourcing for Xerox, wrote that blockchain technology could overhaul our “crippled” EHR management system. Gandotra writes “Historically, EHRs were never really designed to manage multi-institutional and lifetime medical records; in fact, patients tend to leave media data scattered across various medical institutes … This transition of data often leads to the loss of patient data.” He goes on to explain how blockchain, the “distributed ledger” technology originally associated with Bitcoin, can be used to link discrete patient records (or data “blocks”) contained in disparate EHRs into “an append-only, immutable, timestamped chain of content.”

Using blockchain technology to reconfigure EHRs makes sense. Ironically, the design flaw inherent in HIPAA’s original 1996 design (the promotion of electronic health transactions to foster portability and accountability in the health insurance context while treating privacy and security as an afterthought) can be fixed using the very same technology that built the payment network favored by ransomware hackers.

 

This blog recently discussed tips for a covered entity (CE) in dealing with a HIPAA business associate (BA). Now, even though you have adopted all of the tips and more, in this dangerous and ever more complex data security world, one of your BAs suffers a breach and it becomes your responsibility as the victim CE to respond. What should you do?

Our partner Elizabeth Litten and I discussed aspects of this issue with our good friend Marla Durben Hirsch who included some of our discussion in her article in the June 2017 issue of Medical Practice Compliance Alert entitled “6 ways practices can reduce the risk of delegating breach-notification duties.” Full text of the article can be found in the June, 2017 issue, but a number of the items included below are drawn from the article.

  1. Locate the most recent Business Associate Agreement (BAA) with the BA who experienced the breach, and see what it says about the post-breach obligations of the CE and the BA. Two important threshold issues are whether the BA complied with the time period for reporting breaches to the CE contained in the BAA and the remaining time, if any, available to the CE for complying with any reporting requirements under HIPAA and state law, remediation and limitation of loss requirements, and notification requirements to affected individuals (collectively, the Requirements).
  2. Determine promptly what are the time deadlines for notification to insurance carriers if cybersecurity or general liability insurance may be available to the BA and/or the CE for payment of expenses of the breach and its remediation.
  3. Spell out any circumstances where the BA will handle the consequences of a breach that occurred on its watch, and the scope of its responsibilities vs. that of the CE. These can range from delegating to the BA the entire range of Requirements to assumption by the CE of complying with the Requirements with payment by the BA of the costs thereof.
  4.  Make sure that the required reporting and notification Requirements are sent on CE stationery or, if such Requirements are being delegated to the BA (especially where the breach affected a number of different CEs), the notifications make it clear that the breach was attributable to the acts of the BA and not the CE. As CE, insist that the final wording of the required reporting and notification documents be subject to your approval.
  5.  Ensure that your staff is familiar with the circumstances of the breach so that they will be able to answer questions from affected individuals and the media intelligently. It may be advisable to designate a single trained and articulate person to be referred all inquiries, so that the responses are uniform, accurate and clear.
  6.  Assess whether the BA handled the breach adequately and whether you want to retain your relationship with the BA. Did the BA comply with HIPAA and the BAA in the post-breach period? Did the BA cooperate with the CE? What is the likelihood of a repeat breach by the BA? Is the CE assuming the risk of potential repeat HIPAA breaches if the BA relationship is continued?
  7. If you determine as CE that you will continue your relationship with the breaching BA, consider whether the BAA with the BA requires changes based upon the experience of the breach and its aftermath.
  8. As CE, consider modifying, updating and/or strengthening all of your BAAs as a result of your experience.
  9. As CE, you may require improving and/or changing your cybersecurity insurance coverage as a result of experience with the breach.
  10.  As CE, document all activities and decisions respecting HIPAA made in the post-breach period to defend your actions as reasonable and to provide concrete planning steps for future HIPAA compliance.

While all the precautions in the universe by a CE cannot eliminate a HIPAA breach by a BA, a CE that is victimized by such a HIPAA breach can do many things to reduce its liability and image damage and strengthen its own HIPAA compliance and risk avoidance efforts for the future by adopting the steps described above.

On July 23, 2017, Washington State will become the third state (after Illinois and Texas) to statutorily restrict the collection, storage and use of biometric data for commercial purposes. The law focuses on “biometric identifiers,” which it defines as “data generated by automatic measurements of an individual’s biological characteristics, such as a fingerprint, voiceprint, eye retinas, irises, or other unique biological patterns or characteristics that is used to identify a specific individual.”

Notably for our readers, the law excludes all photos, video or audio recordings, or information “collected, used, or stored for health care treatment, payment or operations” subject to HIPAA from the definition of “biometric identifiers.”

We invite you to read Fox partner Gavin Skok’s extensive discussion of the new law and how it handles businesses’ collection, storage and use of biometric identifiers.

Post Contributed by Matthew J. Redding.

On April 26, 2017, Memorial Hermann Health System (“MHHS”) agreed to pay the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) $2.4 million to settle potential violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (“HIPAA”) Privacy Rule.

The underlying incident occurred in September of 2015, when a patient presented a falsified Texas driver’s license to MHHS’ staff upon appearing for the patient’s scheduled appointment. MHHS’ staff contacted law enforcement to verify the patient’s identification, and law enforcement thereafter came to the facility and arrested the patient. The incident drew some national attention from immigration activist groups.  Our partner Bill Maruca posted a blog in September 2015 that discussed the event.

It is important to note that the disclosure to law enforcement was not a contributing factor to the alleged HIPAA violation. In fact, a covered entity is permitted under HIPAA to disclose protected health information (“PHI”) to the limited extent necessary to report a crime occurring on its premises to law enforcement (see 45 CFR 164.512(f)(5)). However, in the MHHS case, the potential HIPAA violation occurred when MHHS issued press releases to several media outlets, addressed activist groups and state officials, and published a statement on its website following the incident, identifying the patient by name on each occasion.

The MHHS facility was a gynecology clinic, and its disclosure of a patient’s name associated with the facility constituted PHI. Therefore, the release of the patient’s name without the patient’s authorization was an impermissible disclosure of PHI under HIPAA.

The OCR alleged that, in addition to the impermissible disclosure of PHI, MHHS failed to document the sanctions imposed on its workforce members responsible for the impermissible disclosures.

6 Takeaways:

Covered entities, such as hospitals, physician practices, and other health care entities, should be cautious in publicizing any event involving its patients so to avoid impermissibly disclosing PHI. Further, public disclosure could open the door to liability under state statutes and common law (e.g., patient’s right of privacy, freedom from defamation, and contractual rights). Here are a few takeaways from the MHHS HIPAA settlement:

  1. PHI must remain protected. The disclosure of PHI to law enforcement, or the presence of health information in the public domain generally, does not relieve the covered entity of its obligations under HIPAA. Instead, covered entities have a continuing obligation to protect and maintain the privacy and security of PHI in their possession and control, and to use and disclose only such information as is permitted under HIPAA.
  2. Avoid inadvertently publishing PHI. PHI is not limited to health information that identifies a patient by his/her name, SSN, address or date of birth. In addition, it includes any other health information that could be used to identify the patient in conjunction with information publicly available. We’ve seen other instances where health care entities inadvertently publish PHI in violation of HIPAA, leading to significant fines (see NY Med: $2.2 Million settlement).
  3. Review your HIPAA policies and procedures with respect to your workforce’s publications and disclosures to the media. To the extent not done so already:
    1. Develop a policy prohibiting your general workforce from commenting to the media on patient events.
    2. Develop a policy with respect to monitoring statements published on your website to avoid publishing any PHI.
    3. Designate a workforce member with a sufficient HIPAA background (nudge, nudge, HIPAA Privacy Officer) to handle media inquiries and provide the workforce with contact information of such member.
  4. Review your HIPAA policies and procedures with respect to law enforcement events.
    1.  For events not likely to compromise the health and safety of others, encourage your workforce to handle such events as discreetly as possible, involving only those members of the workforce who have a need to know.
    2. Train your workforce to identify the situations where disclosure of a patient’s PHI to law enforcement is permissible and those situations where the patient’s authorization must be obtained before disclosing his/her PHI to law enforcement.
  5. Don’t forget to timely notify the affected individuals. If an impermissible disclosure of PHI occurs, do not let the publicizing of such disclosure cause you to forget your breach notification obligations. Failing to timely notify the affected individual could result in additional penalties (see Presence Health: $475,000 settlement). The breach notification clock starts ticking upon the covered entity’s discovery (as defined under HIPAA) of the impermissible disclosure.
  6. Document your responses to impermissible disclosures of PHI and your compliance with HIPAA. HIPAA places the burden on the covered entity to maintain sufficient documentation necessary to prove that it fulfilled all of its administrative obligations under HIPAA (see 78 FR 5566 at 5641). Therefore, once you discover an impermissible disclosure, document how your entity responds, including, without limitation, the breach analysis, proof that the patient notices were timely sent, sanctions imposed upon the responsible workforce members, actions taken to prevent similar impermissible disclosures, etc. Don’t forget, the covered entity is required to maintain such documentation for at least 6 years (see 45 C.F.R. 164.414 and 164.530(j)) .

Our partner Elizabeth Litten and I were recently featured again by our good friend Marla Durben Hirsch in her article in the April 2017 issue of Medical Practice Compliance Alert entitled “Business associates who farm out work create more risks for your patients’ PHI.” Full text can be found in the April, 2017 issue, but a synopsis is below.

In her article Marla cautioned, “Fully one-third of the settlements inked in 2016 with OCR [the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services] dealt with breaches involving business associates.” She pointed out that the telecommuting practices of business associates (“BAs”) and their employees with respect to protected health information (“PHI”) create heightened risks for medical practices that are the covered entities (“CEs”) — CEs are ultimately responsible not only for their own HIPAA breaches but for HIPAA breaches of their BAs as well.

Kline observed, “Telecommuting is on the rise and this trend carries over to organizations that provide services to health care providers, such as billing and coding, telehealth providers, IT support and law firms.” Litten commented, “Most business associate agreements (BAAs) merely say that the business associate will protect the infor­mation but are not specific about how a business associate will do so, let alone how it will when PHI is off site.”

Litten and Kline added, “OCR’s sample business associate agreement is no dif­ferent, using general language that the business associate will use ‘appropriate safeguards’ and will ensure that its subcontractors do so too.”

Kline continued, “You have much less control over [these] people, who you don’t even know . . . . Moreover, frequently practices don’t even know that the business associate is allowing staff or subcontractors to take patient PHI off site. This is a collateral issue that can become the fulcrum of the relationship. And one loss can be a disaster.”

Some conclusions that can be drawn from Marla’s article include the following items which a CE should consider doing  when dealing with BAs:

  1. Select BAs with due care and with references where possible.
  2. Be certain that there is an effective BAA executed and in place with a BA before transmitting any PHI.
  3. Periodically review and update BAAs to ensure that they address changes in technology such as telecommuting, mobile device expansion and PHI use and maintenance practices.
  4. Ask questions of BAs to know where they and their employees use and maintain PHI, such as on laptops, personal mobile devices or network servers, and what encryption or other security practices are in place.
  5. Ask BAs what subcontractors (“SCs”) they may use and where the BAs and SCs are located (consider including a provision in BAAs that requires BAs and their SCs to be legally subject to the jurisdiction of HIPAA, so that HIPAA compliance by the CE and enforcement of the BAA can be more effective).
  6. Transmit PHI to the BA using appropriate security and privacy procedures, such as encryption.
  7. To the extent practicable, alert the BA in advance as to when and how transmission of PHI will take place.
  8. Obtain from each BAA a copy of its HIPAA policies and procedures.
  9. Maintain a readily accessible archive of all BAAs in effect to allow quick access and review when PHI issues arise.
  10. Have a HIPAA consultant available who can be contacted promptly to assist in addressing BA issues and provide education as to best practices.
  11. Document all actions taken to reduce risk from sharing PHI with BAs, including items 1 to 10 above.

Minimizing risk of PHI breaches by a CE requires exercising appropriate control over selection of, and contracting and ongoing interaction with, a BA. While there can be no assurance that such care will avoid HIPAA breaches for the CE, evidence of such responsible activity can reduce liability and penalties should violations occur.