Written by: John Lynn
The following is a guest post by William O’Toole discussing a really misunderstood topic about clinic responsibility in a hosted EHR environment and how to protect your clinic. This ties in really well to Katherine’s previous post about Business Associates HIPAA Preparation.
Too many times people in EMR acquisition mode have made the assumption that hosted solutions automatically insulate the customer provider from liability for data breach or unauthorized disclosure of patient information, which is unsettling because it is simply not true. Health care providers are always responsible to patients for these unfortunate situations and nothing in HIPAA or the HITECH Act shifts that responsibility to the vendor of the hosted software solution. While HITECH does extend compliance requirements and potential penalties to vendors that provide services to providers involving patient information, this does not mean that the provider is not responsible to the patient.
All that gloom aside, it is completely possible to protect the provider organization through indemnification language in the software agreement with the vendor. In situations where the fault (violation of HIPAA) lies with the vendor that is hosting the software, and controlling and possessing patient data, if no indemnification provision exists, then any award for damages in a patient lawsuit would have to be paid by the provider without any contribution from the vendor. Think of the indemnification in that manner. It basically means that if there is a violation, and it is caused in part by the vendor, then the vendor will contribute to the payment of damages to the extent it was at fault.
An indemnification from a vendor Business Associate to a provider Covered Entity for any data breach or unauthorized disclosure of patients’ Protected Health Information (capitalized terms as defined under HIPAA) is critical in light of ARRA/HITECH and its impact on HIPAA. Briefly, ONC will be investigating, auditing, and penalizing both Covered Entities and Business Associates through powerful enforcement of HIPAA as mandated by the HITECH Act.
Providers should review all IT vendor contracts and Business Associate Agreements with those vendors. Ideally, for every vendor relationship with your hospital or practice, those two contracts should have matching language stating that the vendor will indemnify your organization for data breaches or unauthorized disclosures caused by the vendor. There are cases where the main customer/vendor agreement does not contain such language but the Business Associate Agreement does, which is still good. If absent from both, your organization is seriously exposed and you must consider the potential consequences and amend the agreements to include this type of protection whenever possible.
INDEMNIFICATION means a party to an agreement takes on financial responsibility for its actions and is legally obligated to pay damages to the other party. As you read a proposed contract, substitute “pay money to” in place of “indemnify”. It means the party will pay the damages resulting from its actions that would otherwise be paid by the other party if no indemnification existed. Look carefully at what indemnification(s) your organization is asked to provide, and what the other side is offering for indemnification. This comparison must be carefully considered before signing anything.
LIMITATION OF LIABILITY means the vendor is stating (often in ALL CAPS) what it is NOT responsible for. Typical exclusions are “special, incidental and consequential” damages. What this means is that while the vendor might take on responsibility for direct damages for something like product failure, which is often limited to the value of the contract, it purposely disclaims any responsibility for damages over and above the cost of the product. If consequential damages are disclaimed and excluded, the provider could only hope to receive a refund, which would exclude any additional costs like outside consulting trying to make the original product work for your organization, or the additional cost for a more expensive replacement product.
Important note: If you are able to obtain indemnification from a vendor as described above, you must also make sure that any limitation on consequential damages specifically and expressly excludes the indemnification provision. This means that the indemnification will cover both direct damages and then anything over and above that amount, which would be the consequential damages portion.
In summary, as a general statement, a hosting solution by itself does not provide legal protection for data breaches or unauthorized disclosures of patient information. That protection must be negotiated in your contract with the vendor in the form of an indemnification and it is very important.
This posting provides general contract information and is not intended as specific legal advice.
William O’Toole founded the O’Toole Law Group following twenty years as counsel for Medical Information Technology, Inc. (Meditech). His practice is concentrated in health care IT contract review and negotiation. He can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.