Kusserow on Compliance: OCR has a record number of significant settlements so far in 2017

The HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has posted about 2,000 major breaches and more than a quarter million small breaches since 2009. The common denominator for many of the cases in which there was a settlement was that the covered entity or business associate (BA) suffered one or more breaches affecting more than 500 individuals sometime between 2011 and 2013. The OCR has jumped off the 2017 year with a record number of significant settlements. The most recent is CardioNet, a wireless health services provider, who provides remote mobile monitoring of and rapid response to patients at risk for cardiac arrhythmias. The provider entered into a settlement for $2.5 million and implemented a corrective action plan for disclosure of unsecured ePHI on a laptop that was stolen from a parked car. CardioNet had an insufficient risk analysis and risk management processes in place at the time of the theft and their HIPAA Security Rule policies and procedures had not been implemented. The OCR has entered into a number of other significant settlements. Others who paid settlements for violating HIPAA requirements so far this year include Memorial Health Systems ($5.5 million); Children’s Medical Center in Dallas ($3.2 million); MAPFRE, a Puerto Rico life insurance company ($2.2 million); Presence Health in Chicago ($475,000); and Community Provider Network of Denver ($400,000). In all these cases, there was the requirement to take corrective actions.

2016 OCR Results

  • There were 329 Data Breaches greater than 500 Individuals (a new record).
  • 225 OCR Phase 2 of HIPAA compliance audits conducted of covered entities and BAs.
  • No onsite audits were conducted.
  • No findings or notifications from the audits have been made.
  • The OCR intends to use the results from these audits to prepare for a new and better tool in the future.
  • There was a large jump in fines imposed for HIPAA violations that totaled about $24 million (versus a little more than $6 and $8 million in for 2105 and 2014 respectively)

OCR in 2017

  • The OCR stated intention is to conduct only a few onsite audits in 2017.
  • To date the OCR has nearly achieved the level of 2016 in terms of penalties imposed.
  • To date about 100 data breaches impacting greater than 500 Individuals have been reported.
  • About a half million individuals have been impacted in reported data breaches so far this year.
  • Only a relatively few BAs were involved in any of the reported data breaches.

The enforcement actions most often come from the OCR when investigations into the root cause of the breach found systemic, often profound, failures of organizational programs to safeguard protected health information.  This includes the failure to perform an information security risk assessment or to have a risk management plan to address gaps in the safeguards for information systems, both required actions under the HIPAA Security Rule. Tied to this has been insufficient development of policies and procedures for HIPAA Compliance.  Other actionable problems that resulted in the OCR imposing HIPAA corrective action plans (CAP) included inappropriate delay in data breach reporting (reported after 60 days from the date of discovery); and inappropriate oversight into user set up and user management. There is also the continuing problem of organizations not implementing encryption technology on mobile devices.

Camella Boateng, a HIPAA consultant reminds everyone that the recently enacted 21st Century Cures Act amends the HITECH Act to extend an individual’s right to access their PHI to data held by business associates. As such, it is more important than ever that entities give a priority for engaging in a self-audit, so vulnerabilities can be detected and resolved before they come to the attention of the government. Furthermore, with a shifting focus toward BA, it is important to avoid any potential partner that will not commit to signing a BAA.

Strong HIPAA Compliance Program Evidence

  • HIPAA policies and procedures;
  • HIPAA requests forms for patient’s rights;
  • a complete notice of privacy practices;
  • established technical, physical, and administrative safeguards;
  • conducting a regular HIPAA risk analysis;
  • developed a risk management plan to address gaps in the safeguards for PHI;
  • strong workforce education;
  • effective user management and oversight into systems with PHI;
  • auditing practices for verification of compliance;
  • ongoing evaluation of current safeguards established by the organization;
  • strong oversight into user set up and user management;
  • implementing encryption technology on mobile devices; and
  • ensuring partners have signed BAAs.


Richard P. Kusserow served as DHHS Inspector General for 11 years. He currently is CEO of Strategic Management Services, LLC (SM), a firm that has assisted more than 3,000 organizations and entities with compliance related matters. The SM sister company, CRC, provides a wide range of compliance tools including sanction-screening.

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Copyright © 2017 Strategic Management Services, LLC. Published with permission.