Hospital Slammed With $218,000 HIPAA Fine | HIPAA Compliance for Medical Practices | Scoop.it

Federal regulators have slapped a Boston area hospital with a $218,000 HIPAA penalty after an investigation following two security incidents. One involved staff members using an Internet site to share documents containing patient data without first assessing risks. The other involved the theft of a worker's personally owned unencrypted laptop and storage device.


The Department of Health and Human Services' Office for Civil Rights says it has entered a resolution agreement with St. Elizabeth's Medical Center that also includes a "robust" corrective action plan to correct deficiencies in the hospital's HIPAA compliance program.

The Brighton, Mass.-based medical center is part of Steward Health Care System.


Privacy and security experts say the OCR settlement offers a number of valuable lessons, including the importance of the workforce knowing how to report security issues internally, as well as the need to have strong policies and procedures for safeguarding PHI in the cloud.

Complaint Filed

On Nov. 16, 2012, OCR received a complaint alleging noncompliance with the HIPAA by medical center workforce members. "Specifically, the complaint alleged that workforce members used an Internet-based document sharing application to store documents containing electronic protected health information of at least 498 individuals without having analyzed the risks associated with such a practice," the OCR statement says.


OCR's subsequent investigation determined that the medical center "failed to timely identify and respond to the known security incident, mitigate the harmful effects of the security incident and document the security incident and its outcome."


"Organizations must pay particular attention to HIPAA's requirements when using internet-based document sharing applications," says Jocelyn Samuels, OCR director in the statement. "In order to reduce potential risks and vulnerabilities, all workforce members must follow all policies and procedures, and entities must ensure that incidents are reported and mitigated in a timely manner."


Separately, on Aug. 25, 2014, St. Elizabeth's Medical Center submitted notification to OCR regarding abreach involving unencrypted ePHI stored on a former hospital workforce member's personal laptop and USB flash drive, affecting 595 individuals. The OCR "wall of shame" website of health data breaches impacting 500 or more individuals says the incident involved a theft.

Corrective Action Plan

In addition to the financial penalty - which OCR says takes into consideration the circumstances of the complaint and breach, the size of the entity, and the type of PHI disclosed - the agreement includes a corrective action plan "to cure gaps in the organization's HIPAA compliance program raised by both the complaint and the breach."

The plan calls for the medical center to:


  • Conduct a "self-assessment" of workforce members' familiarity and compliance with the hospital's policies and procedures that address issues including transmission and storage of ePHI;
  • Review and revise policies and procedures related to ePHI; and
  • Revise workforce training related to HIPAA and protection of PHI.
Lessons Learned

Other healthcare organizations and their business associates need to heed some lessons from OCR's latest HIPAA enforcement action, two compliance experts say.


Privacy attorney Adam Greene of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine notes: "The settlement indicates that OCR first learned of alleged noncompliance through complaints by the covered entity's workforce members. Entities should consider whether their employees know how to report HIPAA issues internally to the privacy and security officers and ensure that any concerns are adequately addressed. Otherwise, the employees' next stop may be complaining to the government."

The settlement also highlights the importance of having a cloud computing strategy, Greene points out. That strategy, he says, should include "policies, training and potential technical safeguards to keep PHI off of unauthorized online file-sharing services."


The enforcement action spotlights the continuing challenge of preventing unencrypted PHI from ending up on personal devices, where it may become the subject of a breach, he notes.

The case also sheds light on how OCR evaluates compliance issues, he says. "The settlement highlights that OCR will look at multiple HIPAA incidents together, as it is not clear that OCR would have entered into a settlement agreement if there had only been the incident involving online file sharing software, but took action after an unrelated second incident involving PHI ending up on personal devices."


Privacy attorney David Holtzman, vice president of compliance at security consulting firm CynergisTek, says the settlement "serves as an important reminder that a covered entity or a business associate must make sure that the organization's risk assessment takes into account any relationship where PHI has been disclosed to a contractor or vendor so as to ensure that appropriate safeguards to protect the data are in place."


The alleged violations involving the document sharing vendor, he says, "involve failure to have a BA agreement in place prior to disclosing PHI to the vendor, as well as failing to have appropriate security management processes in place to evaluate when a BA agreement is needed when bringing on a new contractor that will handle PHI."

St. Elizabeth's Medical Center did not immediately respond to an Information Security Media Group request for comment.

Previous Settlements

The settlement with the Boston-area medical center is the second HIPAA resolution agreement signed by OCR so far this year. In April, the agency OK'd an agreement with Cornell Prescription Pharmacyfor an incident related to unsecure disposal of paper records containing PHI. In that agreement, Cornell was fined $125,000 and also adopted a corrective action plan to correct deficiencies in its HIPAA compliance program.


The settlement with St. Elizabeth is OCR's 25th HIPAA enforcement action involving a financial penalty and/or resolution agreement that OCR has taken since 2008.


But privacy advocate Deborah Peel, M.D., founder of Patient Privacy Rights, says OCR isn't doing enough to crack down on organizations involved in HIPAA privacy breaches.


"Assessing penalties that low - St. Elizabeth will pay $218,400 - guarantees that virtually no organizations will fix their destructive practices," she says. "Industry views low fines as simply a cost of doing business. They'll take their chances and see if they're caught."


The largest HIPAA financial penalty to date issued by OCR was a $4.8 million settlement with New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University for incidents tied to the same 2010 breach that affected about 6,800 patients. The incidents involved unsecured patient data on a network.