Hospitals pay nearly $1 million over ABC television documentary

After allegations that the privacy of patients was compromised by inviting film crews for an ABC television documentary series without first obtaining authorization, three hospitals in Boston have agreed to pay nearly $1 million to settle potential violations. The HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has reached separate settlements with Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), and Boston Medical Center (BMC) for compromising the privacy of patients’ protected health information (PHI) by inviting film crews for an ABC television network documentary series, without first obtaining authorization from patients. Collectively, the three entities paid OCR $999,000 to settle potential violations of the HIPAA Privacy Rule. HHS has also provided specific guidance about the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (P.L. 104-191) and media coverage, including direction that blurring or pixilation is insufficient to protect patient privacy (Resolution Agreement, August 3, 2018; Resolution Agreement, September 6, 2018; Resolution Agreement, September 6, 2018).


To resolve potential HIPAA violations, MCH agreed to pay $515,000, BWH agreed to pay $384,000, and BMC agreed to pay $100,000. Each entity also agreed to provide workforce training as part of a corrective action plan that will include OCR’s guidance on disclosures to film and media. HHS initiated the investigation of BWH based on information in a Boston Globe newspaper article that indicated BWH permitted ABC News to film a medical documentary program at BWH. HHS also initiated of an investigation of MGH based on a news story posted to MGH’s website indicating that ABC News would be filming a medical documentary program at MCH.

This is the second HIPAA case involving an ABC medical documentary television series. In 2016, New York-Presbyterian Hospital entered into a settlement in association with the filming of “NY Med.” “Patients in hospitals expect to encounter doctors and nurses when getting treatment, not film crews recording them at their most private and vulnerable moments,” said Roger Severino, OCR director. “Hospitals must get authorization from patients before allowing strangers to have access to patients and their medical information.”

Guidance on media coverage

HHS reaffirmed that health care providers cannot invite or allow media personnel, including film crews, into treatment or other areas of their facilities where patients’ PHI will be accessible. This includes any written, electronic, oral, or other visual or audio form, or otherwise make PHI accessible to the media, without prior written authorization from each individual who is or will be in the area or whose PHI otherwise will be accessible to the media. It is not sufficient for a health care provider to request or require media personnel to mask the identities of patients. Using techniques such as blurring, pixelation, or voice alteration software for whom an authorization was not obtained is insufficient.

Only in very limited circumstances does the HIPAA Privacy Rule permit health care providers to disclose protected health information to members of the media without a prior authorization signed by the individual. For example, a covered entity may seek to have the media help identify or locate the family of an unidentified and incapacitated patient in its care. The HIPAA Privacy Rule does not require health care providers to prevent members of the media from entering areas of their facilities that are otherwise generally accessible to the public, which may include public waiting areas or areas where the public enters or exits the facility. A health care provider may also utilize the services of a contract film crew to produce training videos or public relations materials on the provider’s behalf if certain protections are in place.

Kusserow on Compliance: HIPAA enforcement update

At the 2018 HCCA Compliance Institute HIPAA Policy and Enforcement Update, it was reported that since September 2009 through the end of 2017 there were 2178 reports filed with the HHS OCR involving breaches affecting 500 or more individuals. In addition to large breaches, there were over 300,000 reports of breaches of protected health information (PHI) affecting fewer than 500 individuals. Individuals affected by the large breaches were about 177 million. So far, OCR’s website has posted 38 breaches as of April 2018. In all, nearly one million patients may have had their PHI put at risk by these incidents with the number continuing to grow. The breakdown of type of large breaches includes:

  • Loss/Theft continues as the most often reported problem; nearly half of the cases.
  • Laptops and other portable storage devices represented one fourth of large breaches.
  • Hacking/IT Incidents account for about one in five reported incidents.
  • Paper records accounted for another fifth of the large breaches

10 largest 2018 incidents to date by number of patient records affected

  1. 582,174 – California Department of Developmental Services, 4/06/2018, Unauthorized Access/Disclosure Incident
  2. 279,865 – Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences, 1/05/2018, Hacking Incident
  3. 134,512 – St. Peter’s Ambulatory Surgery Center LLC- d/b/a St. Peter’s Surgery & Endoscopy Center, 2/28/2018, Hacking Incident
  4. 70,320 – Tufts Associated Health Maintenance Organization, Inc. reported on 2/16/2018 an Unauthorized Access/Disclosure Incident
  5. 63,551 – Middletown Medical P.C.,  3/29/201 an Unauthorized Access/Disclosure
  6. 53,173 – Onco360 and CareMed Specialty Pharmacy, 1/12/2018, Hacking Incident
  7. 36,305 – Triple-S Advantage, Inc., 2/02/2018, Unauthorized Access/Disclosure Incident
  8. 35,136 – ATI Holdings, LLC and its subsidiaries, 3/12/2018, Hacking Incident
  9. 34,637 – City of Houston Medical Plan reported on 3/22/2018 a Theft of Laptop Incident
  10. 30,799 – Mississippi State Department of Health, 3/26/2018, Unauthorized Access/Disclosure

Top 10 Recurring Compliance Issues

  1. Pattern of disclosure with sensitive paper PHI
  2. Business Associate Agreements
  3. Risk analysis issues
  4. Failure to manage identified risk, e.g. Encryption of data
  5. Lack of transmission security
  6. Lack of appropriate auditing
  7. No patching of software
  8. Insider threats from employees and contactors
  9. Improper disposal of data
  10. Insufficient data backup and contingency planning

HHS OCR calls for health care organizations to establish contingency plans to keep patient data secure and mandate that covered entities and business associates have such plans. In their March newsletter, OCR officials urged health care organizations to figure out which IT systems are critical, to understand how to function in a disaster, and to back up PHI so it can be retrieved if the original data are lost or taken offline. Once developed, the plan should be routinely tested to identify gaps and ensure updates for plan effectiveness and increase organizational awareness. The plan should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis when there are changes: technical, operational, or in personnel.


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.

Connect with Richard Kusserow on Google+ or LinkedIn.

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Copyright © 2018 Strategic Management Services, LLC. Published with permission.

Kusserow on Compliance: Emerging government enforcement priorities for 2018

At the HCCA conference in April, there were several presentations regarding the government’s enforcement priorities. There were a number of emerging issues that were the subject of considerable attention: the opioid crisis, electronic health record (EHR) fraud, and telehealth/telemedicine. By far, the area given the most attention was the opioid crisis.  More than a dozen presenters included comments in their presentations on this subject, including presenters from the DOJ, OIG, CMS, and the OCR. This is not surprising in that last October the President declared this to be a national public health care crisis and marshaled regulatory and enforcement agencies to actively focus on steps to alleviate it. Other agencies not present at the HCCA are included in this effort, such as the FDA, FCC, CDC, Indian Health Service, Veterans Administration, Department of Defense TRICARE program, and others. At the federal and state level, there is increased legislative, regulatory, and enforcement actions activity related to substance abuse and behavioral health services. In January, the Attorney General announced the DEA was increasing its focus on pharmacies and prescribers who dispense unusual or disproportionate amount of such drugs. He also has created the Prescription Interdiction and Litigation (PIL) task force to aggressively deploy and coordinate all available criminal and civil law enforcement tools to address the crisis. Both DOJ and OIG presenters noted the July 2017 “take down” of 412 defendants in 41 different judicial districts. The defendants included over 100 doctors, nurses, and other medical license professionals. Together these individuals were responsible for over $1.3 billion in false billings.

The second most reported topic concerned cyber and IT security of Protected Health Information (PHI). This was a main topic in the presentation by OCR, but was alluded to in seven other presentations on cybersecurity and threats and complying with HIPAA Privacy and Security standards. The OCR reported that since 2009, there have been 2178 reports of breaches over 500 files with more than 300,000 cases of breaches affecting fewer than 500 files. The OCR has responded to over 170,000 complaints that resulted in over 25,000 cases being resolved with corrective action measures.  The OCR expects about 17,000 new complaints this year.  The top 10 recurring issues involve: (1) disclosure of sensitive paper information, (2) business associate agreements, (3) risk analysis, (4) failure to manage risks, such as with encryption, (5) lack of transmission security, (6) failure of ongoing auditing, (7) no patching of software, (8) insider threats, (9) improper disposal of records, and (10) insufficient backup of information and contingency planning.

Several sessions focused on physician arrangements and how they could implicate the Anti-Kickback Statute and Stark Laws.  Statistics from DOJ indicated the continuing trend of increased number of qui tam cases that has grown from 426 in 2015 to around 500 in 2017 with annual settlements averaging about $2.5 billion per year.

New cases involving Meaningful Use Fraud were reported with the promise that more new cases were under development.  Another area getting a lot of enforcement attention by the DOJ and OIG relate to telehealth and telemedicine. Cases surfacing now are focusing on claims arising from billings for these areas that did not qualify as such.  Only certain telehealth services are covered by Medicare and providers should take care to follow CMS guidance on what qualifies.

It is interesting to compare these priorities with results for the 2018 Compliance Benchmark Survey of compliance officers. There was no mention of the opioid crisis, as it was just an emerging national issue at the time the survey was taken. HIPAA security/cyber-security was the highest priority. It is troubling that corrupt arrangements with referral sources remains the number one regulatory and enforcement priority for the OIG and DOJ but is ranked fifth in priority to respondents. The other major and continuing enforcement priority related to claims submissions and that ranked third in priority by compliance officers.  A complementary webinar relating to this survey will be presented on May 9th.

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.

Connect with Richard Kusserow on Google+ or LinkedIn.

Subscribe to the Kusserow on Compliance Newsletter

Copyright © 2018 Strategic Management Services, LLC. Published with permission.

Kusserow on Compliance: Physicians must comply with sharing patient information

Under the electronic health records (EHR) metric, The Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA) (P.L. 114-10) requires attestations from doctors that they are not knowingly and willfully limiting or restricting their EHR’s ability to share information with providers that may have different record systems.  CMS has issued new guidance reminding providers of their responsibilities to promptly share medical information with patients and other clinicians, or else face financial penalties. The targets are providers participating in the Merit-based Incentive Payment System (MIPS) to comply with MACRA. The notice stated physicians will need to attest that they are not engaged in information blocking and that they give patients their data in a timely fashion. Many physicians and medical practices use vendors for their information management systems. They will now have to ensure their vendors enable them to comply with the information sharing mandates.

Under MIPS, providers become eligible for either bonus payments or penalties based on their performance, including evidence of quality improvement, cost reduction or maintaining current levels of spending; efficient use of EHRs; and clinical improvement activities such as later office hours and greater use of care coordination. The Prevention of Information Blocking Attestation has three related statements for MIPS eligible clinicians:

  1. They did not knowingly and willfully take action to limit or restrict the compatibility or interoperability of Certified EHR Technology (CEHRT).
  2. They implemented technologies, standards, policies, practices, and agreements reasonably calculated to ensure the CEHRT was connected and compliance with applicable law and standards for timely access by patients to their data and other health care providers.
  3. They responded in good faith and in a timely manner to request to retrieve or exchange EHR from patients and other health care providers.

CMS also stated that physicians would not be held accountable for things outside of their control, but must get adequate assurances from their vendors that they are able to comply with the information sharing requirements. On the other hand, physicians must take care that they don’t violate the HIPAA Privacy law for patient Protected Health Information (PHI).


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.

Connect with Richard Kusserow on Google+ or LinkedIn.

Subscribe to the Kusserow on Compliance Newsletter

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