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.

Kusserow on Compliance: New analysis of OCR reports found 1800 large breaches over 7 years

In presentation at the Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA) entitled “OCR Enforcement Update,” HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) Senior Adviser Iliana Peters reported that the OCR continues to receive and resolve complaints of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (P.L. 104-191) (HIPAA) violations of an increasing number. To date, the OCR has received 150,507 complaints, with 24,879 being resolved with corrective action measures or technical assistance.  She estimated that the OCR will receive about 17,000 complaints in 2017.

A new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found since 2009 that 1,798 “large data breaches” involving patient information since 2009 had been reported by health care providers to the OCR.  Out of that number, 216 hospitals reported 257 data breaches, while 33 hospitals were found to have experienced multiple data breaches.  Of 141 acute care hospitals reporting breaches, 52 were major academic medical centers.  These numbers are misleading in that they represent only a small fraction of the total number of breaches, as indicated by Peters.  The reason is that smaller breaches are not required to be reported, and many breaches may not have been voluntarily reported.  The need for increased vigilance and internal controls are needed.

Latest OCR resolution

The OCR announced a resolution agreement based on the lack of a security management process to safeguard electronic protected health information (ePHI). Metro Community Provider Network (MCPN), a federally-qualified health center (FQHC), has agreed to settle potential noncompliance with the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules by paying $400,000 and implementing a corrective action plan. MCPN filed a breach report with the OCR indicating that a hacker accessed employees’ email accounts and obtained 3,200 individuals’ ePHI through a phishing incident. As with many of the reported large breaches, the OCR found that prior to the breach incident, there was no risk analysis to assess the risks and vulnerabilities in its ePHI environment and a corresponding failure to implement any associated risk management plans to address the risks and vulnerabilities identified in a risk analysis.

Reminder tips on HIPAA compliance

As a reminder, entities should perform the following recommended steps in order to comply with HIPAA.

  1. Perform a complete a security risk analysis that addresses ePHI vulnerabilities.
  2. Engage an outside expert to independently verify that Privacy/Security Officers are meeting obligations.
  3. Properly address identified risks with corrective action measures.
  4. Follow the basics in reviewing compliance for information security risks and PHI breaches.
  5. Verify that the Code of Conduct covers reporting HIPAA violations.
  6. Ensure that policies and procedures govern receipt and removal of laptops containing ePHI.
  7. Train the workforce on HIPAA policies and procedures, including reporting violations
  8. Ensure that all business associates (BAs) have signed BA agreements (BAAs), with contact information on file.
  9. Verify that controls cover gaining access to ePHI by workforce members and users.
  10. Encrypt and password protect all laptops and mobile devices.
  11. Implement safeguards to restrict access to unauthorized users.
  12. Validate effectiveness of internal controls, policies, and procedures
  13. Review adequacy of security processes to address potential ePHI risks and vulnerabilities.
  14. Ensure that a hotline is set up to receive HIPAA-related calls.

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.

AMA preparing to tackle questions surrounding physician-patient texting

Regulators are serious about privacy and violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) (P.L. 104-191), and crackdowns keep providers on their toes. The evolution of technology provides innovative and efficient ways to practice medicine and communicate with patients, but this evolution brings with it new obstacles that can easily trip up a provider who is not paying close attention. At the end of a long day, a tired doctor might send a quick text to a mother who does not want to bring in her sick child if over-the-counter medicines will do the trick, trying to be as accommodating as possible and truly caring for the patient’s well-being. Both mother and doctor will be relieved that an unnecessary trip was avoided, but is this type of communication appropriate?

The American Medical Association (AMA) provides guidelines for providers on issues just like this one, and the AMA House of Delegates will consider expanding its advice on email communications to include text messaging at a June meeting. Although the AMA maintains that a face-to-face meeting is the foundation of a physician’s relationship with a patient, it recognizes that patients and physicians may prefer text message communications in various settings.

Considerations when texting

As expected, the AMA’s first basic standard of engagement to consider is HIPAA. The Board of Trustees (BOT) recommends discussing obligations under HIPAA’s Security Rule with both information technology (IT) staff and legal counsel. This rule requires that entities transmitting electronic protected health information (ePHI) ensure that these transmissions are confidential and secure. The AMA provides an educational tool to assist providers in achieving compliance with the rule, and HHS offers advice on protecting ePHI when using cell phones.

Providers should keep in mind potential differences in communication with patients, as opposed to colleagues. While doctors and nurses in the same office may think nothing of texting one another, a patient needs to consent to communication. Current guidance indicates that a patient’s initiation of a text conversation may serve as consent, but some providers might obtain written consent that acknowledges risks in such transmissions. Patients should be reminded that security is not guaranteed and that privacy can be breached as easily as someone they know using their phone and seeing a text.

Boundaries

In addition to consent and security issues, the AMA raises several points more along the lines of etiquette but that must be approached within the patient-physician relationship framework. A physician should establish boundaries with patients, such as establishing reasonable response times and appropriate times of day for texting. Additionally, extensive conversations are not recommended, and if a patient requests a lengthy explanation the physician should request that the patient come into the office.

When texting, the AMA recommends keeping a formal tone, cordial but refraining from using jokes, emoticons, or emotionally charged or sarcastic speech. The recommendations even extend to ending texts with the physician’s full name and business affiliation, accompanied by a request to acknowledge receipt of the message. Although it may seem obvious, the AMA also reiterates refraining using identifying information such as name or Social Security number and keeping text records.

Covered entities should report cybersecurity threats, but no PHI disclosures

Cyber threats are becoming more and more common, both in general and specifically in the health sphere. The Department of Homeland Security operates the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center (NCCIC), with four branches dedicated to protecting the right to privacy in the government, private sector, and international defense network communities. The US Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) develops information on immediate threats and analyzes data gleaned from cybersecurity incidents.

As part of these efforts, health entities can report any suspicious activity or cybersecurity incidents to US-CERT. Disclosing cyber threat indicators, which includes information such as malicious reconnaissance, security vulnerabilities, methods of defeating controls or exploiting vulnerabilities, is intended to alert other entities of possible issues. This type of information sharing allows the federal government to better protect information systems, and maintain current alerts and reports on vulnerabilities on the US-CERT site.

HIPAA concerns

HHS recently clarified that entities subject to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) (P.L. 104-191) may not disclose protected health information (PHI) for the purpose of sharing cyber threat indicators. This also applies to business associates. PHI may only be released under these circumstances if the disclosure is permitted under the Privacy Rule.

HHS noted that PHI is generally not included in cyber threat indicators, so prohibiting PHI disclosure in cyber threat reporting will typically not be an issue. Under the Privacy Rule, an entity could disclose PHI to law enforcement without the individual’s written authorization in order to comply with a court order or to alert and inform law enforcement as necessary regarding criminal activity. In some instances, an entity may report limited PHI. Entities may disclose to federal officials authorized to conduct national security activities or to protect the President. In all other circumstances that are not expressly included and permitted in the Privacy Rule, the entities must obtain authorization from the individual whose PHI is to be disclosed.