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Words of Warning: “No breach too small”: Department of Health and Human Services

The Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights (OCR) reached its first settlement for a breach involving data regarding less than 500 individuals.  Under the December 2012 settlement, the Hospice of North Idaho (HONI) will pay OCR a $50,000 penalty to resolve allegations that it violated the HIPAA Security Rule.  The breach occurred in June 2010 with the theft of an unencrypted laptop computer containing the electronic protected health information (ePHI) of 441 HONI patients. OCR investigated the breach after HONI disclosed it in its annual report of breaches that involved less than 500 individuals required under the HITECH Act.

The Resolution Agreement subjects HONI to a two-year Corrective Action Plan (CAP), whereby it must closely monitor and promptly investigate any potential violations of HIPAA Privacy and Security policies and procedures by its employees.  If HONI determines that a violation (Reportable Event) occurred, it must report the details of the investigation and all corrective action taken to address the Reportable Event to OCR within 30 days. (We note that it is unclear whether the 30-day countdown starts from the date the Reportable Event occurred or from the conclusion of the investigation.)  Within 30 days of the end of each year the CAP is in place, HONI must notify OCR if no Reportable Events have occurred during the preceding year.

Providers may learn three lessons from the HONI resolution:

  1. OCR pays attention to the annual reports of breaches required under the Breach Notification Rule;
  2. no breach is “too small” for OCR enforcement action; and
  3. mobile device and laptop security is a continued concern for OCR.

Again, the risks related to the use of mobile devices like laptops, PDAs, and smartphones are well-known and have been addressed in previous blog posts both here and in our Health Law & Policy Matters blog on “bring your own device” policies and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary resolution (also stemming from a self-reported breach).    As OCR Director Leon Rodriguez emphasized in the HONI resolution press release, “Encryption is an easy method for making lost information unusable, unreadable and undecipherable.” The HONI resolution shows that OCR will continue to address all breaches, large or small.

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About this Author

Stephanie Willis, Health Care, Attorney, Mintz Levin, Law Firm
Associate

Stephanie primarily works with health care clients, including clinical laboratories, renal dialysis providers, and hospitals to comply with state and federal laws and regulations governing licensure, reimbursement, health care fraud and abuse, telemedicine, and health information privacy requirements.

She has used her past experience as an Associate Counsel in the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services and as an intern at various Massachusetts health care agencies to help clients achieve positive results.

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