Last week, I blogged about a recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights (OCR) announcement on its push to investigate smaller breaches (those involving fewer than 500 individuals).   The week before that, my partner and fellow blogger Michael Kline wrote about OCR’s guidance on responding to cybersecurity incidents.  Today, TechRepublic Staff Writer Alison DeNisco addresses how a small or medium sized business (MSB) can deal with the heightened threat of OCR investigations or lawsuits emanating from a security breach.  Alison’s piece, “Security breaches:  How small businesses can avoid a HIPAA lawsuit”, is must-read for MSBs struggling to understand and prioritize their cybersecurity needs.

Michael and I spoke with Alison about the recent OCR pronouncements, and she pulled several of our comments together to create a list of tips for an SMB to consider to minimize HIPAA security breach headaches. The following 6 tips are excerpted from the full article:

  1. Hire a credible consultant to help you approach the issue, and how you would respond in the event of a breach. [In other words, perform your own security risk assessment, or, if impractical, hire an expert to perform one.]
  2. Document that you have policies and procedures in place to fight cyber crime. “If you didn’t document it, it didn’t happen,” Kline said.
  3. Stay informed of cybersecurity news in your industry, or join an association. Be aware of what other companies in your space are doing to protect themselves.
  4. Update your security settings on a regular basis, perhaps every time you add new employees or change systems, or on an annual basis.
  5. Present annually to your company board on where the company is in terms of cybersecurity protection, and where it needs to be to remain as safe as possible in the future.
  6. If you’re an IT consultant working with a healthcare organization, be clear with your client what you need to access and when, Litten said. “A client that has protected health information in its software should carefully delineate who has access to that software,” she added.

The article also quotes Ebba Blitz, CEO of Alertsec, who offers an equally important tip for the SMB dealing with employees’ use of mobile devices that contain or are used to transmit PHI:

You need a good plan for mitigating BYOD,” Blitz said. She further recommends asking employees to document their devices, so businesses can keep track of them and install security tools.

In summary, confronting ever-growing and evolving challenges of cybersecurity for SMBs is dependent upon serious planning, development and implementation of current policies and procedures, documentation of cybersecurity measures taken and entity-wide commitment to the efforts.

We blogged on this back in early May, but compliance with individuals’ rights to access their PHI under HIPAA is even more critical now that OCR has announced that its current HIPAA audits will focus on an audited Covered Entity’s documentation and process related to these access rights.

In an email sent to listserv participants on July 12, 2016 from OCR-SECURITY-LIST@LIST.NIH.GOV, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) included the following list of areas of focus for the desk audits:

Requirements Selected for Desk Audit Review
Privacy Rule
Notice of Privacy Practices & Content Requirements  [§164.520(a)(1) & (b)(1)]
Provision of Notice – Electronic Notice   [§164.520(c)(3)]
Right to Access  [§164.524(a)(1), (b)(1), (b)(2), (c)(2), (c)(3), (c)(4), (d)(1), (d)(3)]
Breach Notification Rule
Timeliness of Notification  [§164.404(b)]
Content of Notification  [§164.404(c)(1)]
Security Rule
Security Management Process —  Risk Analysis  [§164.308(a)(1)(ii)(A)]
Security Management Process — Risk Management  [§164.308(a)(1)(ii)(B)]

As discussed in our prior post, HHS issued guidance regarding individuals’ rights to access PHI earlier this year. Here is a link to this PHI access guidance:  Individuals’ Right under HIPAA to Access their Health Information |

The HHS access guidance stresses that Covered Entities should provide individuals with “easy access” to their PHI and cannot impose “unreasonable measures” on the individuals with respect to this right to access. The HHS access guidance provides important information regarding the different rules that apply when an individual provides a signed authorization for release of their PHI versus when an individual is really making a request for access to his or her PHI.

If an individual is asking for the PHI to be provided to him or her, this is really a request for access even if the individual is providing a signed authorization for release of the PHI.

If the individual is asking the PHI to be directed to a third party, this can be either a situation when a signed authorization is needed or can be an access request, depending on who is really originating the request (the individual or the third party). A Covered Entity cannot require an individual to provide a signed authorization to make an access request.  A Covered Entity can require that the access request be in writing and can require use of a form as long as it does not impose undue burden on the individual’s right to access.

The HHS access guidance also indicates that if an individual requests that his or her PHI be provided by email, the Covered Entity is required to do so and further, if the individual requests in writing that the PHI be provided by unsecure, unencrypted email, the Covered Entity is required to do so after notifying the individual in writing of the risks of this method of transmission. (This notice can be included on the access request form.)

As a result of the HHS access guidance, a Covered Entity may need to review and amend its HIPAA Privacy Policies and Procedures governing individual rights with respect to access to PHI, the form it uses for individual access requests, and its employee training protocols to be sure employees aren’t requiring a patient  (or member, in the case of a health plan Covered Entity) to sign an authorization form when the patient is requesting access to PHI.

My heart goes out to any family member trying desperately to get news about a loved one in the hours and days following an individual or widespread tragedy, irrespective of whether it was triggered by an act of nature, an act of terrorism, or any other violent, unanticipated, life-taking event. My mind, though, struggles with the idea that HIPAA could actually exacerbate and prolong a family member’s agony.

HIPAA is, generally speaking, intended to protect our privacy when it comes to health status, treatment, or payment and to facilitate appropriate access to our health information. But, as is typical with federal laws intersecting areas historically governed by State law, HIPAA defers to State law in some key respects.  For example, if a HIPAA provision is contrary to a similar provision of State law, it preempts State law unless the State law relates to the privacy of individually identifiable health information and is “more stringent” than the comparable HIPAA provision.  HIPAA also references “applicable law” in describing who can get information as a personal representative of an individual or act on behalf of a deceased individual.

So what does this mean in the context of family members seeking information about loved ones following the devastating Orlando, Florida night club shooting or following some other violent tragedy?

If a victim is hospitalized and a friend or family member is trying to get information about the victim, HIPAA permits the hospital to share information under the following circumstances:

*          A hospital may use protected health information (PHI) to notify or assist in the notification of a family member, personal representative or other person responsible for the patient’s care of the patient’s location, general condition or death

*          A hospital can use a facility directory to inform visitors and callers of a patient’s location and general condition

*          A hospital can release information as to the victim of a crime in response to law enforcement’s request for such information under certain circumstances, and law enforcement can notify the families

*          If the patient is competent, the patient can tell the hospital that it may release all information to their family and friends

*          If the patient is not competent to authorize release of information, a “personal representative” (a person authorized under State law to act on behalf of the patient to make health care decisions) can have all information necessary to make decisions.  That person can also authorize release of information to others

Sadly, the agony of loved ones seeking information about a patient may be prolonged if they are not viewed as family members or if State law does not recognize the loved one as a “personal representative”.  Sure, the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) could amend the HIPAA regulations to deem certain individuals (for example, same-sex partners who are not legally married) to be personal representatives for purposes of access to PHI.  [Note: HHS treats legally married same-sex spouses as “family members” under HIPAA — see special topic publication available here.]

However, if the State law does not recognize these certain individuals as personal representatives, perhaps because the State law is “more stringent than” HIPAA in affording the patient greater privacy, HHS might also have to amend its HIPAA preemption regulations.

Hospitals and other health care professionals are constantly called upon to exercise discretion in dealing with requests for PHI from family members and loved ones of patients while complying with HIPAA.   HIPAA regulations may need to be modified or perhaps could be “waived” (as described yesterday’s Washington Post article) in some cases, but only when doing so furthers the fundamental HIPAA goals of privacy protection and facilitation of appropriate access.

Because of the enormity of the Orlando tragedy, some State legislatures may be expected to consider whether changes are necessary to promote information sharing in exigent circumstances while preserving the State’s interest in affording patients greater privacy protection than that afforded by HIPAA.

Our partner Elizabeth Litten and I were quoted by our good friend Marla Durben Hirsch in her article in Medical Practice Compliance Alert entitled “6 Compliance Trends Likely to Affect Your Practices in 2016.” Full text can be found in the January 13, 2016, issue, but a synopsis is below.

For her article, Marla asked various health law professionals to make predictions on matters such as HIPAA enforcement, the involvement of federal agencies in privacy and data security, and actions related to the Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) of the federal Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”).

After the interview with Marla was published, I noted that each of Elizabeth’s and my predictions described below happened to touch on our anticipation of the expansion by HHS and other federal agencies of their scope and areas of healthcare privacy regulation and enforcement. I believe that this trend is not a coincidence in this Presidential election year, as such agencies endeavor to showcase their regulatory activities and enlarge their enforcement footprints in advance of possible changes in the regulatory environment under a new administration in 2017. If an agency can demonstrate effectiveness and success during 2016 in new areas, it can make a stronger case for funding human and other resources to continue its activities in 2017 and thereafter.

Our predictions that were quoted by Marla follow.

Kline Prediction: Privacy and data enforcement actions will receive more attention from federal agencies outside of the OCR.

In light of the amount of breaches that took place in 2015, the New Year will most likely see an increase of HIPAA enforcement. However, regulators outside of healthcare –such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission — also try to extend their foothold into the healthcare compliance realm, much in a way that the Federal Trade Commission has.

Litten Prediction: The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the OCR will focus more on individual liability

In September of 2015, the DOJ announced through the Yates Memo, that they would be shifting their strategy to hold individuals to a higher level of accountability for an entity’s wrongdoing. The OCR has also mentioned that they will focus more on individuals who violate HIPAA. “They’re trying to put the fear in smaller entities. A small breach is as important as a big one,” says Litten.

Kline Prediction: OCR will examine business associate relationships.

The HIPAA permanent audit program, which has been delayed by the OCR, will be rolled out in 2016 and will scrutinize several business associates. In turn, all business associate relationships will receive increased attention.   According to Kline, “There will be more focus on how you selected and use a business associate and what due diligence you used. People also will be more careful about reviewing the content of business associate agreements and determining whether one between the parties is needed.”

We shall continue to observe whether the apparent trend of federal agencies to grow their reach into regulation of healthcare privacy continues as we approach the Presidential election.

Our partner Elizabeth Litten and I were once again quoted by our good friend Marla Durben Hirsch in her recent articles in Medical Practice Compliance Alert entitled “Misapplication of Internet Application Triggers $218,400 Settlement” and “Protect Patient Data on the Internet with These 6 Steps.”  The three of us together were able to come up with a number of ideas to assist physicians in improving the likelihood that protected health information (“PHI”) will be more secure. The full text can be found in the August 17, 2015 issue of Medical Practice Compliance Alert, but a synopsis of our input is included below.

Internet applications and files should be included in a physician practice’s HIPAA compliance plan, or a violation may result.  As an example, St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center (“SEMC”) in Brighton, MA recently settled several potential HIPAA violations for $218,400 with the Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) of the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”).  One of the incidents involved SEMC’s use of an unauthorized internet-based document. The size of this settlement highlights the concerns of OCR about misuse by healthcare providers of internet-based document sharing or other applications.

Some steps to protect patient data on the internet include the following:

  1. Review the internet applications your practice uses. Litten says, “Take steps such as encryption to protect the data when it’s shared, transmitted and stored.”
  2. Ask the application’s manufacturer about its security safeguards. “If a manufacturer claims that (its application) is HIPAA protected, ask what that means,” Litten urges.
  3. Investigate all internal and external complaints and concerns. Kline says, “Expect the government to find out about PHI exposed on the Internet from a third party.”
  4. Keep track of the steps you take to identify and fix the problem. “You do better if you have a history that you endeavored to comply with HIPAA,” says Kline.
  5. Provide a mechanism by which employees can report concerns anonymously. Kline suggests, “You need a private place where people feel they’re not being watched.”
  6. Don’t allow staff to use unauthorized public networks. “Don’t open documents in, say, a Starbucks,” warns Litten.

In summary, in order for physicians to protect their practices, they must be certain that they understand HIPAA obligations with respect to privacy and security in the context of internet application usage.

We know by now that protected health information (PHI) and other personal information is vulnerable to hackers.  Last week, the Washington Times reported that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the agency responsible for HIPAA enforcement, had suffered security breaches at the hands of hackers in at least five separate divisions over the past three years.  The article focused on a House Committee on Energy and Commerce report that described the breaches as having been relatively unsophisticated and the responsible security officials as having been unable to provide clear information regarding the security incidents.

We know it’s not a question of “if” sensitive information maintained electronically will be compromised by a hacking or other type of cyber security incident, but “when” — regardless of who maintains it — and how destructive an incident it will be. Even HHS and its operating divisions, which include both the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), charged with protecting PHI privacy and security, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the country’s principal consumer protection and health agency, are vulnerable.

Just one day before its coverage of the House Committee report on the cyber security vulnerabilities that exist within the very government agencies charged with protecting us, the Washington Times reported on an even more alarming cyber security risk: the vulnerability of common medical devices, such as x-ray machines and infusion pumps, to hacks that could compromise not just the privacy and security of our health information, but our actual physical health.

This report brought to mind a recent report on the ability of hackers to remotely access the control systems of automobiles.  While the thought of losing control of my car while driving is terrifying, the realization that medical devices are vulnerable to hackers while being used to diagnose or treat patients is particularly creepy.  The two situations may present equally dangerous scenarios, but hacking into a medical device is like hacking into one’s physical being.

So while it’s one thing to have PHI or other sensitive information compromised by a hacking incident, it’s much more alarming to think that one’s health status, itself, could be compromised by a hacker.

Health-related technology has developed light-years faster than health information privacy and security protection laws and policies, and consumers can find new mobile health applications for a wide range of purposes ranging from diabetes management to mole or rash evaluation to fitness tracking.  Smart mobile app developers wondering when and how HIPAA privacy and security requirements affect their products need to take a step back and ask that most basic of HIPAA questions:  What am I?

The question one that has been posed on this blog in the past, and one worth returning to on a regular basis because the answer is not always obvious, but is critical for HIPAA compliance.

The Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently released a letter written to U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio regarding development and use of mobile health apps and HIPAA compliance reminding him (and anyone reading the letter) that:

“The first question for any entity … is whether it is a covered entity or a business associate within the meaning of the HIPAA rules.” 

The Secretary then helpfully provides links to the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) website’s “frequently asked questions” tools (see here for examples of “Who are Business Associates” and here for information on Covered Entities) and points out that OCR works closely with the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) developing guidance and tools (a tool specific to mobile device privacy and security is available here) for securing health information technology.   However, there’s no quick and easy way to figure out whether HIPAA applies to a specific mobile health application.  The inquiry must always go back to the beginning:  are you a Business Associate (or subcontractor of a Business Associate) or a Covered Entity?  If not, while there may be other state and federal laws that require you protect individually identifiable information (of which protected health information, or PHI, is a subset), HIPAA does not apply.

Bear in mind that your HIPAA identity will change depending on who is using you and for what purpose.  If you develop a mobile health app allowing an individual to create, receive, maintain or transmit information about herself, it is likely the app is not covered by HIPAA because the individual is not acting as a Business Associate or Covered Entity when using the app.  Even if the individual uses the app to send her PHI to her health care provider, the app most likely will not be subject to HIPAA, just as the patient herself is not subject to HIPAA with respect to information about herself she chooses to share with her provider. However, if you develop the app for use by the health care provider, you very well may be a Business Associate to the Covered Entity health care provider.  In this scenario, if you are providing a service on behalf of the provider that involves your access to PHI (whether sent by the individual patient herself or not), you must comply with HIPAA.

So while the basic “What am I?” question sounds simple, the answer requires consideration of who is downloading and using the mobile health app you create, and the purpose for which it is being used.

On the twelfth day of breaches
my hacker sent to me:

Twelve Data Downloads

Eleven Plundered Patches

Ten Missed BA Contracts

Nine Malware Installs

Eight Mis-sent Faxes

Seven Stolen Laptops

Six Snooping Staffers

Five Old NPPs

Four Lost Thumbdrives

Three Re-sent Texts

Two Pop-up Links …

And a Bill for Compliance Auditing.

For a glimpse at what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights (HHS) expects a HIPAA covered entity to do to remedy faulty Security Rule Policies and Procedures, see the “Corrective Action Obligations” listed in the Resolution Agreement between HHS and Anchorage Community Mental Health Services, Inc.

Happy Holidays to All!

Fox Rothschild partner Scott Vernick recently appeared as a guest on the Willis Report to discuss the fallout of the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment.  Click here to view the segment.  Celebrities’ individually identifiable health information, some of which appears to be protected health information (“PHI”) under HIPAA, was among the sensitive personal data hacked into.  According to one report, a file was accessed that contains a list of the highest-cost patients covered by Sony Pictures’ health plan.

As a covered entity, a health plan (and/or its business associate) that suffers a breach of plan members’ PHI may find itself subject to civil monetary penalties imposed by the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) that can be substantial, particularly if HHS determines the HIPAA violation was due to willful neglect and was not corrected during the 30-day period beginning on the first date the health plan (or its business associate, if the business associate is liable) knew or, by exercising reasonable diligence, would have known that the violation occurred.

Penalties under these circumstances are to be at least $50,000 for each violation, up to $1,500,000 for identical violations in a single calendar year.  Penalties of up to $50,000 for each violation and up to $1,500,000 for identical violations in a year can even be imposed when the health plan (or business associate) did not know, and by exercising reasonable diligence, would not have known that it had violated HIPAA.  45 CFR 160.404.

The Secretary of HHS will consider aggravating factors in determining the amount of the penalty, including whether the HIPAA violation resulted in harm to an individual’s reputation.  45 CFR 160.408.

Although HIPAA may seem the least of Sony Pictures’ concerns right now, as discussed in previous posts (here and here) regarding the recent Byrne v. Avery Center for Obstetrics and Gynecology, P.C. case,  HIPAA “may well inform the applicable standard of care” in negligence actions brought under state law.

As if compliance with the various federal privacy and data security standards weren’t complicated enough, we may see state courts begin to import these standards into determinations of privacy actions brought under state laws. Figuring out which federal privacy and data security standards apply, particularly if the standards conflict or obliquely overlap, becomes a veritable Rubik’s cube puzzle when state statutory and common law standards get thrown into the mix.

A state court may look to standards applied by the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”), the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”), the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”), or some other federal agency asserting jurisdiction over privacy and data security matters, and decide whether the applicable standard or standards are preempted by state law. The state court may also decide that one or more of these federal agencies’ standards represent the “standard of care” to be applied in determining a matter under state law. Or, as shown in a recent Connecticut Supreme Court decision discussed in Michael Kline‘s November 9th post, a court may decide that state law is not preempted by federal law or standards in one respect, while recognizing that the federal law or standard may embody the “standard of care” to be applied in deciding a privacy or data security matter under state law.