Preparation is key to HIPAA compliance for health IT vendors

Health IT vendors are not breach proof but should be “breach ready,” according to a Health Care Compliance Association webinar entitled, HIPAA: Marketing and Contracting Solutions for Health IT Vendors. William J. Roberts, partner at Shipman & Goodman LLP, discussed strategies for vendors to incorporate compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) (P.L. 104-191) into negotiations, agreements, and policies.

HIPAA landscape

HIPAA privacy continues to grow in importance for the health care sector, for both covered entities and their vendors. Roberts said that health IT vendors face two challenges: managing covered entity customers that have concerns about HIPAA compliance, a “major undertaking” when a vendor has thousands of covered entity customers, and a regulatory and enforcement landscape that is shifting its focus from covered entities to vendors (see 2017 OCR resolution agreements off to a strong start, June 30, 2017; Business associates no longer second to covered entities as OCR increases focus, November 22, 2016). He pointed out that 60 percent of business associates have suffered a data breach, and in 2016 HHS imposed a $650,000 penalty in the first HIPAA enforcement action against a business associate (see $650K payment, 6 year CAP resolve nursing home ePHI loss, July 1, 2016).

Pitches

A vendor should already have developed a formal HIPAA compliance program before reaching out to potential customers, and HIPAA compliance should be at the forefront of a vendor’s pitch or response to a request for proposals. The vendor should provide a summary of its HIPAA compliance policies, including its establishment, review, security, and training. A policy summary, said Roberts, is preferable to disclosing the policies themselves, which would be a “roadmap to being hacked.” Roberts also advised vendors to highlight certifications and set forth clear expectations for the privacy aspects of the proposed relationship.

Business associate agreements

The business associate agreement is a vendor’s first opportunity to make a good impression regarding its commitment to privacy. Vendors should have at least one template agreement, or more than one for different types of customers. Roberts advised knowing what a vendor can and cannot agree to before a negotiation and educating the sales team to avoid later back-pedaling on a promise. He also suggested empowering the customer by providing a “menu” of choices that are acceptable to the vendor—for example, barebones breach notice within five days or a more thorough notice at 15 days.

If customers are or might someday be substance abuse treatment providers, the vendor should consider this same approach for qualified service organization agreements. The vendor should review its customers and potential targets for the application of the “Part 2” confidentiality rules and include a provision in the agreement requiring the customer to notify the vendor of the customer’s status as a Part 2 program.

Data breach response

No human or service is perfect, and a vendor will probably have a data breach at some point, said Roberts, which makes a detailed data breach response plan “vital.” He identified the following elements of a breach response plan:

  • Develop an incident intake procedure.
  • Identify the leaders and members of the response team.
  • Rely on standard templates and standard works.
  • Consider a “playbook” and/or a breach reporting decision tool.
  • Develop a customer relations strategy before the breach occurs.
  • Have support vendors ready to act.

The vendor should not simply notify the customer that a breach has occurred; it should have a plan and proposal that it can offer the customer. The process should:

  • provide the covered entity the information it needs to fulfill its own legal obligations;
  • reassure the customer that the situation is under control and being handled properly;
  • inform the customer of steps the vendor has taken and is willing to take on behalf of the covered entity;
  • provide a “menu” of services available to the customer; and
  • create a plan for the future—a holistic look at what the company is doing, not just boilerplate language.