HIPAA Compliance for Medical Practices
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HIPAA Compliance for Medical Practices
HIPAA Compliance and HIPAA Risk management Articles, Tips and Updates for Medical Practices and Physicians
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HIPAA Privacy Complaint Results in Federal Criminal Prosecution for First Time

HIPAA Privacy Complaint Results in Federal Criminal Prosecution for First Time | HIPAA Compliance for Medical Practices | Scoop.it

For the first time, a HIPAA privacy complaint filed with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has resulted in federal criminal prosecution.

 

A complaint was filed with OCR over an impermissible disclosure of a patient’s protected health information by a doctor. The doctor, Richard Alan Kaye of Suffolk, Va., was alleged to have shared PHI with the patient’s employer without consent from the patient – A violation of the HIPAA Privacy Rule.

 

The case against Kaye has been referred to the Department of Justice, which has pressed charges. While OCR has referred more than 500 HIPAA violation cases in the past, this if the first time that an investigation of a privacy complaint has resulted in criminal prosecution.

 

Kaye had previously worked at Sentara Obici Hospital in Suffolk, Va., as Medical Director of its Psychiatric Care Center. The patient had been enrolled in a mental health treatment program at the hospital and Kaye treated and subsequently discharged the patient. On discharge, Kaye stated that the patient was not a threat to the public.

 

Federal prosecutors allege Kaye shared PHI with the patient’s employer “under the false pretenses that the patient was a serious and imminent threat to the safety of the public, when in fact he knew that the patient was not such a threat.”

 

While it was previously possible for egregious HIPAA violations to result in criminal prosecutions for HIPAA covered entities, filing charges against individuals was problematic. When individuals were discovered to have violated the privacy of patients, and the violations warranted criminal prosecution, it was necessary to file charges under the aiding and abetting theory – The abuse of an individual’s position to violate HIPAA Rules.

 

However, the 2009 Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH Act) provided further clarification on criminal prosecutions for HIPAA violations, and made the process of prosecuting individuals for HIPAA privacy violations more straightforward.

 

If cases are investigated and OCR determines HIPAA Rules have been violated by covered entities, the cases are typically resolved by OCR, often via settlements. However, if individuals are alleged to have violated HIPAA Rules, criminal penalties may be appropriate. In such cases, OCR can refer the cases to the Department of Justice, the federal attorney general, and/or state attorneys general to pursue criminal charges against those individuals.

 

While criminal cases have been filed against individuals who violated HIPAA Rules and impermissibly disclosed PHI, the uncertainty of pursuing cases against individuals prior to the passing of the HITECH Act dissuaded federal prosecutors from pursuing cases. Since the HITECH Act was passed, there have been referrals of cases, although this is understood to be the first time that the Department of Justice has actively pursued criminal charges against an individual following the referral of a privacy complaint by OCR.

 

There is no private cause of action in HIPAA. While private citizens can file complaints with the OCR over alleged violations of HIPAA Rules, they are not permitted to file lawsuits against covered entities for HIPAA violations. The lack of criminal penalties for HIPAA violations may have dissuaded patients from filing complaints. Now the Department of Justice is taking action against an individual for an egregious HIPAA privacy violation, it may encourage more patients to file complaints with OCR.

 

This DOJ case shows federal authorities are now taking HIPAA Privacy Rule violations much more seriously. OCR is also training state attorneys general on HIPAA enforcement. After state attorney generals have received training, it is expected they too will take a more aggressive stance against covered entities that have violated the privacy of state residents.

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How to Comply with HIPAA

How to Comply with HIPAA | HIPAA Compliance for Medical Practices | Scoop.it

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was created in 1996 to protect patients' health information. Since its inception, health care providers have struggled with the need to protect patient privacy, share information, and keep paper work under control.


“When HIPAA came out, everyone was so afraid of penalties … but a lot of it was a reasonable recognition of patients' privacy that was already occurring in 99.9% of the cases,” said L. Lee Hamm, MD, Professor of Medicine and Executive Vice Dean at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans.

 

“It added a lot of administrative burden and … it introduced a few things to make certain that people didn't inadvertently do something they shouldn't do.”

 

Electronic information


A part of HIPAA with which specialists in particular are concerned is sharing information among other health care providers. Entities covered under HIPAA are allowed to share private information with other health care professionals for the purposes of treatment, payment, and operations.

 

But Heinold said there are often delays during this process that can negatively impact quality of care and increase liability. This can occur when providers unnecessarily request patients' consent.

 

One of the most efficient ways to communicate among providers is via electronic communication. HIPAA was amended in 2009 to encompass the use of electronic health records with the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act.

 

Fresenius staff is increasingly receiving communication about patients electronically through mediums such as text and instant messaging, Heinold said. While this can facilitate exchange of records, it also comes with inherent risks. Fresenius trains staff to provide the minimum necessary information when texting about patients.

 

Louis Liou, MD, Chief of Urology at Cambridge Health Alliance, said his organization's biggest HIPAA concerns relate to electronic information. To comply, Cambridge ensures that all physicians with smart phones have them password protected and that their e-mail is secure.

 

Cambridge physicians try to avoid texting patient information when possible, but if they must, they do not use any patient identifiers in the text messages.

 

“There are a lot of pitfalls that could potentially happen,” Dr. Liou said. “Thumb drives have given way to Cloud issues. I think potentially there can always be problems – no matter how failsafe you make the system, there is always human error.”

 

Dialysis settings


Another concern is the communal open-floor nature of some clinical settings, as is often the case in dialysis centers, which may make it difficult to protect patient privacy. Still, training staff and implementing privacy procedures can go a long way to meeting HIPAA requirements.

 

Rosemary Heinold, Director of Communications for Fresenius Medical Care North America, a dialysis services provider and manufacturer of peritoneal and hemodialysis machines and equipment, said their organization has a handful of practices that help them comply with HIPAA.

 

Although patients are examined on the dialysis floor, Fresenius clinics also offer private examination rooms. Patients are never required to be examined in an open setting and may request a private room for physician consultations.

 

Like most providers, Fresenius staff gives patients a notice of privacy rights, which individuals must sign. They also post a notice of their privacy practices at all treatment sites.

 

Fresenius providers also work by the “minimum necessary” rule. The staff only shares the least amount of information necessary with patients on the clinic floor, particularly when others are within earshot.

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No Exception to HIPAA Privacy Rules, Nurse Learns

No Exception to HIPAA Privacy Rules, Nurse Learns | HIPAA Compliance for Medical Practices | Scoop.it

Ms. P, 45, was a nurse working in the cardiology department of a large hospital. Her duties were varied, and included, among other things, accessing patient medical records to review lab values and other diagnostic tests ordered by physicians, and writing progress notes in patients' charts.

When she was originally hired by the hospital, she was given a lecture from human resources about the importance of patient confidentiality. Ms. P was required to sign an agreement stating that she would protect patient confidentiality by only seeking or obtaining information regarding a patient that was required to perform her duties.

Later, when the U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) went into effect, Ms. P was required to go to another human resources seminar and sign a revised confidentiality agreement.

 

The revised agreement stated that she would not access or view information other than what was required to do her job, and that she would immediately ask her supervisor for clarification if she had any questions about whether information was required for her job.

 

Finally, the agreement contained a section saying that Ms. P acknowledged that violation of the facility's confidentially policy could result in disciplinary action up to and including termination.

Ms. P understood the importance of patient confidentiality and would never look in the records of patients that weren't hers—with two exceptions. Ms. P's mother and sister both had serious chronic conditions that frequently resulted in hospital visits over the years.

 

Ms. P's mother had Parkinson's disease, was on numerous medications, and was prone to falls. Ms. P's older sister, who lived with her, had Down syndrome. Ms. P would periodically look up her mother's and sister's health records on the hospital computer to get information or to access their treatment plans. She didn't see anything wrong with this because it was her own family.

 

One of her colleagues, however, had noticed Ms. P looking at the records on more than one occasion, and anonymously reported her. The hospital's HIPAA compliance officer began an investigation that revealed that Ms. P had accessed her mother's charts on 44 separate occasions and her sister's charts on 28 occasions.

 

When the human resources director confronted her with the results of the investigation, Ms. P admitted that she had accessed the records, but that they were the records of her family members and therefore she didn't see anything wrong with it.

 

“Did you need to access information from their medical records in order to do your job as a clinical affiliate in the cardiology department?” the human resources director asked sternly.

“No,” Ms. P replied. “They were not cardiology patients.”

She was fired that day. Angered by the loss of her job, Ms. P sought the advice of an attorney to see if she could sue the hospital for wrongful termination. The attorney was skeptical.

“HIPAA violations are taken very seriously,” he said. “Did they give you training about patient privacy?”

 

Ms. P admitted that she'd had training.

“Were you asked to sign anything?” the attorney inquired.

“Well, yes,” Ms. P said. “I did sign a confidentiality agreement, and the hospital does have a policy that you could lose your job for violating it. But this was my mother and sister! They don't mind that I looked at their records!”

 

“That's irrelevant,” the attorney said. “It doesn't matter if they are family or not. You still didn't have the right to look at the records. I don't think we have a leg to stand on, unless…” the attorney trailed off, thinking.

 

“How old are you?” he suddenly asked.

When she told him, he smiled. “I think we may have an angle. We can try suing the hospital for age discrimination. We can claim that the privacy violation was merely a pretext to get rid of you – a higher paid experienced nurse – and replace you with a less expensive junior person.”

 

The attorney filed the papers against the hospital. The hospital's attorney promptly filed a motion to dismiss. The court, after reviewing all the facts, dismissed Ms. P's case.

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NueMD HIPAA Survey Results 

NueMD HIPAA Survey Results  | HIPAA Compliance for Medical Practices | Scoop.it

In 2014, NueMD, an Electronic Health Record (EHR) and billing software company, distributed a questionnaire to medical practices and billing companies to gain insights on their knowledge of HIPAA regulations, compliance measures, and communication methods.¹ There were 1197 responses, with 1037 medical practices and 160 billing companies. Two years later in 2016, the survey was distributed again to determine how much has changed in relation to the participants’ knowledge.² This time it was a total of 927 responses, with 799 medical practices and 58 billing companies. The respondents were clients of NueMD.

In this blog, we compare the data found in these two surveys. The results are surprising.

HIPAA Audits

2014: In 2014, only 32% of those surveyed were aware of HIPAA audits

2016: In 2016, 40% participants reported that they knew about HIPAA audits

Currently, audits of business associates are taking place. The first round in 2016 looked at covered entities (primarily healthcare providers). In October 2016, HIPAA audits expanded to include business associates. HHS is drawing from a list of 20,000 BAs identified in the first round of audits. Next year, OCR plans to conduct full audits for a selected group of covered entities and business associates. These audits will be more intense than previous ones because they involve auditors coming onsite for several days. HHS gives the practice 10 days to prepare. For those organizations that have not started the compliance process in advance, there is almost no way to prepare in time if you are selected for an audit.3

HIPAA Compliance Plan

2014:In 2014, 58% of those surveyed stated they had a HIPAA compliance plan in place. However, there was a disconnect between managers and staff. 68% of managers claimed to have a HIPAA compliance plan but only43% of staff.

2016:In 2016, a whopping 70% of respondents reported that they have a HIPAA compliance plan.

All organizations that come in contact with PHI should have a compliance plan in place. There are several important documents that a medical practice must complete to have a comprehensive  plan. This includes Privacy and Security Policies and Procedures, Business Associate Agreements and a Risk Assessment. Based on the response to the next two questions, it is likely that not as many healthcare providers are really as compliant as they indicate.

Business Associate Agreement (BAA)

2014: 60% of those surveyed were aware that the Omnibus Ruling requires BAAs with third party vendors.

2016: The number rose to 68% of participants knowing about the BAA rules.

Business Associate Agreements Reviewed and Updated

2014: 24% of respondents had “all” of their BAAs reviewed and updated since the 2013 Omnibus Rule, and 21% surveyed said “some”.

2016: There was an increase from 2014 to 2016, with 29% responding “all” BAAs are updated and reviewed, and 19% having “some” of their BAAs up to date.

Recently OCR was notified that Women and Infants Hospital (WIH) of Rhode Island lost unencrypted backup tapes of ultrasounds of over 14,000 patients. The tapes also included PHI like names and dates of birth. WIH is a covered entity member of Care New England Health Center (CNE). CNE provides centralized corporate support for its covered entities. The two organizations signed their BAA in 2005 and had not updated it since. he Omnibus Ruling in 2013 added extra requirements to Business Associate Agreements. Failure to update their BAA to incorporate these new requirements rendered their 2005 Agreement ineffective. In the end, the outdated BAA resulted in a $400,000 settlement.

Risk Assessment

2014: Only 33% said they performed a risk analysis

2016: This question was not included in the NueMD 2016 HIPAA Survey Update

If there is a audit, one of the first things OCR will ask to see is a Risk Assessment. This helps organizations realize their potential areas of risk in regards to the PHI they handle. Failing to assess potential areas of risk in your organization is failing to protect PHI.

In July 2016, a settlement was reached with U-Miss Medical Center after a breach that affected 10,000 people. It was found that UMMC did not take adequate risk management security measures. They settled with OCR for $2.75 million.5

HIPAA Training

2014: 62% of managers reported that they provided HIPAA training for their employees.

2016: This number surprisingly dropped over the 2 years. Only 58% of organizations surveyed claimed to have provided HIPAA training.

Proper HIPAA training should educate people on the Law. Lack of training equals lack of knowledge and translates into more risk. On October 17, 2016, St. Joseph Health (SJH) settled potential violations with HHS following the report that files containing PHI were publicly accessible through internet search engines from 2011 until 2012. SJH will pay a settlement amount of $2,140,500 and adopt a comprehensive corrective action plan. As part of the corrective action plan, with HHS’ final approval of the training materials, SJH must train all appropriate workforce members, in accordance with SJH’s applicable administrative procedures and provide annual retraining.6

To help comply with the current compliance regulation, check out Total HIPAA’s latest service, HIPAA Prime™. HIPAA Prime is an easy-to-follow, cost-effective online solution for quickly developing and implementing your personalized HIPAA Compliance Plan. Whether you are a small or large organization, HIPAA Prime will satisfy all of your documentation and training requirements.

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Do HIPAA Rules Create Barriers That Prevent Information Sharing?

Do HIPAA Rules Create Barriers That Prevent Information Sharing? | HIPAA Compliance for Medical Practices | Scoop.it

The HHS has drafted a Request for Information (RFI) to discover how HIPAA Rules are hampering patient information sharing and are making it difficult for healthcare providers to coordinate patient care.

 

HHS wants comments from the public and healthcare industry stakeholders on any provisions of HIPAA Rules which are discouraging or limiting coordinated care and case management among hospitals, physicians, patients, and payors.

 

The RFI is part of a new initiative, named Regulatory Sprint to Coordinated Care, the aim of which is to remove barriers that are preventing healthcare organizations from sharing patient information while retaining protections to ensure patient and data privacy are protected.

 

The comments received through the RFI will guide the HHS on how HIPAA can be improved, and which policies should be pursued in rulemaking to help the healthcare industry transition to coordinated, value-based health care.

 

The RFI was passed to the Office of Management and Budget for review on November 13, 2018. It is currently unclear when the RFI will be issued.

 

Certain provisions of HIPAA Rules are perceived to be barriers to information sharing. The American Hospital Association has spoken out about some of these issues and has urged the HHS to take action.

 

While there are certainly elements of HIPAA Rules that would benefit from an update to improve the sharing of patient health information, in some cases, healthcare organizations are confused about the restrictions HIPAA places on information sharing and the circumstances under which PHI can be shared with other entities without the need to obtain prior authorization from patients.

 

The feedback HHS is seeking will be used to assess what aspects of HIPAA are causing problems, whether there is scope to remove certain restrictions to facilitate information sharing, and areas of misunderstanding that call for further guidance to be issued on HIPAA Rules.

 

HIPAA does permit healthcare providers to share patients’ PHI with other healthcare providers for the purposes of treatment or healthcare operations without authorization from patients. However, there is some confusion about what constitutes treatment/healthcare operations in some cases, how best to share PHI, and when it is permissible to share PHI with entities other than healthcare providers. Simplification of HIPAA Rules could help in this regard, as could the creation of a safe harbor for good faith disclosures of PHI for the purposes of case management and care co-ordination.

 

While the HHS is keen to create an environment where patients’ health information can be shared more freely, the HHS has made it clear is that there will not be any changes made to the HIPAA Security Rule. Healthcare providers, health plans, and business associates of HIPAA-covered entities will still be required to implement controls to ensure risks to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of protected health information are managed and reduced to a reasonable and acceptable level.

 

In addition to a general request for information, the HHS will specifically be seeking information on:

 

The methods of accounting of all disclosures of a patient’s protected health information
Patients’ acknowledgment of receipt of a providers’ notice of privacy practices


Creation of a safe harbor for good faith disclosures of PHI for purposes of care coordination or case management
Disclosures of protected health information without a patient’s authorization for treatment, payment, and health care operations
The minimum necessary standard/requirement.


While the RFI is likely to be issued, there are no guarantees that any of the comments submitted will result in HIPAA rule changes.

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Few Things Physicians are Not Doing to Comply with HIPAA.

Few Things Physicians are Not Doing to Comply with HIPAA. | HIPAA Compliance for Medical Practices | Scoop.it

Shortly after the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was implemented, David Zetter was at a doctor's office helping the group build a compliance plan. He was in the back of the practice training some of the staff when the receptionist walked in and handed him a piece of paper.

 

The note was from a patient saying she could see everyone's names and files at the front desk and she knew that was a HIPAA violation.

 

More than a decade later, HIPAA compliance has become ingrained: Files are not left out in the open, patient information is not improperly disclosed, and doctors do not leave health-related messages on answering machines. It is routine to have every patient sign a HIPAA release and go about your business.

 

But compliance is not a one-and-done activity as much as an evolution of rules and procedures. Compliance gurus bet there are at least a few things physicians are not doing to comply with HIPAA.

 

Make a plan
One main thing that practices should have is a compliance plan, but many do not, said Zetter, founder of Zetter Healthcare Management Consultants. “They buy a cheap manual off of the internet and think that works,” he said. “But it cannot be implemented that way; it wasn't set up for your practice.”

 

Even state medical societies sell how-to manuals, but Zetter said this is only a document meant to guide you through creating a compliance plan, not the plan itself.

 

Sample HIPAA compliance plans and instructions for completing one can be found online. The Massachusetts Medical Society provides a document with a checklist and tips to help doctors develop their own documents.

 

Analyzing compliance
The second thing that needs to be completed is a gap analysis. These are used to determine what the organization is doing and what they should be doing. Zetter said an office needs to take each section of the regulation, see what is required and compare it with what is being done. Detailed information on creating a gap analysis can be found at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Website.

 

Once gaps are identified, it is important to find ways to mitigate the potential problem areas. Physicians can do this by performing a risk analysis, which provides the basis for developing ways to cover themselves if an information breach should occur.

 

A risk analysis can arrive at whether there is a low, medium, or high risk of a HIPAA violation occurring, Zetter said. The greater the risk, the more resources are needed for prevention. All of this should be documented.

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Staff Nurse Faces Jail Time for HIPAA Violations

Staff Nurse Faces Jail Time for HIPAA Violations | HIPAA Compliance for Medical Practices | Scoop.it

Her breach of a patient's privacy jeopardized the clinic from which she was subsequently fired.

 

What began as routine file maintenance ended in arrest and possible jail time for a licensed practical nurse who shared a patient's medical information with her spouse.

 

Ms. A, 29, had been employed by a midsize regional clinic for five years. While she enjoyed her job and got on well with her supervisor, Dr. P, she was known to bemoan what she saw as low pay and the financial strain it created for herself and her husband. That strain intensified when her husband was in an auto accident and then sued by people in the other car seeking compensation for their injuries.

 

One day, as Ms. A was flipping through charts to straighten up the files, she saw the plaintiff's name. Reading the chart with great interest, she jotted some notes, stuck them in her bag, and replaced the file. That night, as her husband complained about the impending lawsuit and its potential financial consequences, Ms. A smiled and reached into her bag for the notes she'd taken earlier. “I think this will help,” she said.

 

The next day, Mr. A phoned the patient. During the conversation, he made it known that he had medical information which he believed weakened the man's case. Mr. A suggested that he consider dropping the lawsuit.

 

After hanging up with Mr. A, the patient made two phone calls. First he called the clinic where Ms. A worked. Then he called the district attorney.

 

The next morning, Ms. A was summarily fired. “You may very well have put this whole clinic in jeopardy,” Dr. P told her.

 

After Ms. A left the building, Dr. P called a meeting of all the nurses, physician assistants, and support staff and explained why Ms. A had been fired. Outlining the laws on patient privacy, he informed them that no breach of these laws would be tolerated under any circumstances.

 

Meanwhile, Ms. A's problems were just beginning. The district attorney forwarded the patient's complaint to a federal prosecutor, and within a month, both Ms. A and her husband were indicted. Ms. A was charged with violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and with “conspiracy to wrongfully disclose individual health information for personal gain with maliciously harmful intent in a personal dispute.” Her husband was charged with witness tampering. The couple hired a criminal defense attorney, who negotiated a plea agreement with the federal prosecutor. Ms. A pleaded guilty to one count of wrongful disclosure of individual health information for personal gain. In exchange for her plea, the charges against her husband were dismissed.

 

Ms. A is awaiting sentencing. She faces up to 10 years in prison, a fine of as much as $250,000, and up to three years of supervised probation. The state nursing board is seeking to revoke her license.

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