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Don’t Worry About HIPAA – When Your License Is At-Risk!

Posted on October 24, 2016 I Written By

The following is a guest blog post by Mike Semel, President and Chief Compliance Officer at Semel Consulting.
medical-license-revoked
Not long ago I was at an ambulance service for a HIPAA project when one of their paramedics asked what the odds were that his employer would get a HIPAA fine if he talked about one of his patients. I replied that the odds of a HIPAA penalty were very slim compared to him losing his state-issued paramedic license, that would cost him his job and his career. He could also be sued. He had never thought of these risks.

Doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, psychologists, nurses, EMT’s, paramedics, social workers, mental health counselors, and pharmacists, are just some of the professions that have to abide by confidentiality requirements to keep their licenses.

License and ethical requirements have required patient and client confidentiality long before HIPAA and other confidentiality laws went into effect.  HIPAA became effective in 2003, 26 years after I became a New York State certified Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). Way back in 1977, the very first EMT class I took talked about my responsibility to keep patient information confidential, or I would risk losing my certification.

While licensed professionals may not talk about an individual patient or client, weak cybersecurity controls could cause a breach of ALL of their patient and client information – instantly.
health-data-encryption
Most certified and licensed professionals will agree that they are careful not to talk about patients and clients, but how well do they secure their data? Are their laptops encrypted? Are security patches and updates current? Do they have a business-class firewall protecting their network? Do they have IT security professionals managing their technology?
psychologist-loses-license-prostitute-takes-laptop
Lawyers have been sanctioned for breaching confidentiality. Therapists have lost their licenses. In one well-publicized case a psychologist lost his license when a prostitute stole his laptop. In rare cases a confidentiality breach will result in a jail sentence, along with the loss of a license.

Cyber Security Ethics Requirements
Lawyers are bound by ethical rules that apply to confidentiality and competence. The competence requirements typically restrict lawyers from taking cases in unfamiliar areas of the law. However, The American Bar Association has published model guidance that attorneys not competent in the area of cyber security must hire professionals to help them secure their data.

The State Bar of North Dakota adopted technology amendments to its ethics rules in early 2016. The State Bar of Wisconsin has published a guide entitled Cybersecurity and SCR Rules of Professional Conduct. In 2014, The New York State Bar Association adopted Social Media Ethics Guidelines. Lawyers violating these ethical requirements can be sanctioned or disbarred.

A State Bar of Arizona ethics opinion said “an attorney must either have the competence to evaluate the nature of the potential threat to the client’s electronic files and to evaluate and deploy appropriate computer hardware and software to accomplish that end, or if the attorney lacks or cannot reasonably obtain that competence, to retain an expert consultant who does have such competence.”

Some licensed professionals argue that their ethical and industry requirements mean they don’t have to comply with other requirements. Ethical obligations do not trump federal and state laws. Lawyers defending health care providers in malpractice cases are HIPAA Business Associates. Doctors that have to comply with HIPAA also must adhere to state data breach laws. Psychiatric counselors, substance abuse therapists, pharmacists, and HIV treatment providers have to comply with multiple federal and state confidentiality laws in addition to their license requirements.

There are some exemptions from confidentiality laws and license requirements when it comes to reporting child abuse, notifying law enforcement when a patient becomes a threat, and in some court proceedings.

While the odds of a federal penalty for a confidentiality breach are pretty slim, it is much more likely that someone will complain to your licensing board and kill your career. Don’t take the chance after all you have gone through to earn your license.

About Mike Semel
mike-semel-ambulance
Mike Semel is the President and Chief Compliance Officer for Semel Consulting. He has owned IT businesses for over 30 years, has served as the Chief Information Officer for a hospital and a K-12 school district, and as the Chief Operating Officer for a cloud backup company. Mike is recognized as a HIPAA thought leader throughout the healthcare and IT industries, and has spoken at conferences including NASA’s Occupational Health conference, the New York State Cybersecurity conference, and many IT conferences. He has written HIPAA certification classes and consults with healthcare organizations, cloud services, Managed Service Providers, and other business associates to help build strong cybersecurity and compliance programs. Mike can be reached at 888-997-3635 x 101 or mike@semelconsulting.com.

States Strengthen Data Breach Laws & Regulations

Posted on October 18, 2016 I Written By

The following is a guest blog post by Mike Semel, President and Chief Compliance Officer at Semel Consulting.

If your cyber security and compliance program is focused on just one regulation, like HIPAA or banking laws, many steps you are taking are probably wrong.

Since 2015 a number of states have amended their data breach laws which can affect ALL BUSINESSES, even those out of state, that store information about their residents. The changes address issues identified in breach investigations, and public displeasure with the increasing number of data breaches that can result in identity theft.

Forty-seven states, plus DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands, protect personally identifiable information, that includes a person’s name plus their Driver’s License number, Social Security Number, and the access information for bank and credit card accounts.

Many organizations mistakenly focus only on the data in their main business application, like an Electronic Health Record system or other database they use for patients or clients. They ignore the fact that e-mails, reports, letters, spreadsheets, scanned images, and other loose documents contain data that is also protected by laws and regulations. These documents can be anywhere – on servers, local PC’s, portable laptops, tablets, mobile phones, thumb drives, CDs and DVDs, or somewhere up in the Cloud.

Some businesses also mistakenly believe that moving data to the cloud means that they do not have to have a secure office network. This is a fallacy because your cloud can be accessed by hackers if they can compromise the local devices you use to get to the cloud. In most cases there is local data even though the main business applications are in the cloud. Local computers should have business-class operating systems, with encryption, endpoint protection software, current security patches and updates, and strong physical security. Local networks need business-class firewalls with active intrusion prevention.

States are strengthening their breach laws to make up for weaknesses in HIPAA and other federal regulations. Between a state and federal law, whichever requirement is better for the consumer is what those storing data on that state’s residents (including out of state companies) must follow.

Some states have added to the types of information protected by their data breach reporting laws. Many states give their residents the right to sue organizations for not providing adequate cyber security protection. Many states have instituted faster reporting requirements than federal laws, meaning that incident management plans that are based on federal requirements may mean you will miss a shorter state reporting deadline.

In 2014, California began requiring mandatory free identity theft prevention services even when harm cannot be proven. This year Connecticut adopted a similar standard. Tennessee eliminated the encryption safe harbor, meaning that the loss of encrypted data must be reported. Nebraska eliminated the encryption safe harbor if the encryption keys might have been compromised. Illinois is adding medical records to its list of protected information.

Massachusetts requires every business to implement a comprehensive data protection program including a written plan. Texas requires that all businesses that have medical information (not just health care providers and health plans) implement a staff training program.

REGULATIONS

Laws are not the only regulations that can affect businesses.

The New York State Department of Financial Services has proposed that “any Person operating under or required to operate under a license, registration, charter, certificate, permit, accreditation or similar authorization under the banking law, the insurance law or the financial services law” comply with new cyber security regulations. This includes banks, insurance companies, investment houses, charities, and even covers organizations like car dealers and mortgage companies who handle consumer financial information.

The new rule will require:

  • A risk analysis
  • An annual penetration test and quarterly vulnerability assessments
  • Implementation of a cyber event detection system
  • appointing a Chief Information Security Officer (and maintaining compliance responsibility if outsourcing the function)
  • System logging and event management
  • A comprehensive security program including policies, procedures, and evidence of compliance

Any organization connected to the Texas Department of Health & Human Services must agree to its Data Use Agreement, which requires that a suspected breach of some of its information be reported within ONE HOUR of discovery.

MEDICAL RECORDS

People often assume that their medical records are protected by HIPAA wherever they are, and are surprised to find out this is not the case. HIPAA only covers organizations that bill electronically for health care services, validate coverage, or act as health plans (which also includes companies that self-fund their health plans).

  • Doctors that only accept cash do not have to comply with HIPAA.
  • Companies like fitness centers and massage therapists collect your medical information but are not covered by HIPAA because they do not bill health plans.
  • Health information in employment records are exempt from HIPAA, like letters from doctors excusing an employee after an injury or illness.
  • Workers Compensation records are exempt from HIPAA.

Some states protect medical information with every entity that may store it. This means that every business must protect medical information it stores, and must report it if it is lost, stolen, or accessed by an unauthorized person.

  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Illinois (beginning January 1, 2017)
  • Massachusetts
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • North Dakota
  • Oregon
  • Puerto Rico
  • Rhode Island
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • Wyoming

Most organizations are not aware that they are governed by so many laws and regulations. They don’t realize that information about their employees and other workforce members are covered. Charities don’t realize the risks they have protecting donor information, or the impact on donations a breach can cause when it becomes public.

We have worked with many healthcare and financial organizations, as well as charities and general businesses, to build cyber security programs that comply with federal and state laws, industry regulations, contractual obligations, and insurance policy requirements. We have been certified in our compliance with the federal NIST Cyber Security Framework (CSF) and have helped others adopt this security framework, that is gaining rapid acceptance.

About Mike Semel
mike-semel-hipaa-consulting
Mike Semel is the President and Chief Compliance Officer for Semel Consulting. He has owned IT businesses for over 30 years, has served as the Chief Information Officer for a hospital and a K-12 school district, and as the Chief Operating Officer for a cloud backup company. Mike is recognized as a HIPAA thought leader throughout the healthcare and IT industries, and has spoken at conferences including NASA’s Occupational Health conference, the New York State Cybersecurity conference, and many IT conferences. He has written HIPAA certification classes and consults with healthcare organizations, cloud services, Managed Service Providers, and other business associates to help build strong cybersecurity and compliance programs. Mike can be reached at 888-997-3635 x 101 or mike@semelconsulting.com.

Guest Post: HIPAA Responsibility – Whether You Want It or Not

Posted on March 21, 2012 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.


Guest Blogger: Jan McDavid is General Counsel and Compliance Officer at HealthPort, a Release of Information and Audit Management Technology company. You can read more of Jan’s posts on the HealthPort blog.

John Lynn’s post “Covered Entity is Only One with Egg on Their Face” is good warning to healthcare providers: as HIPAA enforcement gains teeth, you are responsible for breaches caused by your business associates. The increase in HIPAA enforcement, penalties and current ONC audits make it clear that ignorance of adherence to HIPAA by your business associates (BA) is not a valid strategy.

In fact, the Poneman Institute Study cites 46 percent of breaches as caused by BAs, yet the covered entity (CE) is responsible for 100 percent of them from a legal prospective.

The time for inaction regarding your BAs is over. Now is the time to confront the issue head-on. The good news is that it costs less in the long run to prevent breaches than it does to pay for breaches committed by your BAs. Here’s how to get started.

It’s Time to Act

The same policies and procedures that you have implemented for yourself are applicable to your BAs. Of course, since the BAs do not report through your organization, the best way to assume compliance is through your contracting process.

It is not enough to just put it in the contract. In the old “trust but verify” school of management, your contract must also contain avenues of verification. That can include surveys, reports, audits, policy and procedure manuals, etc. This due diligence at contracting time pays off in many ways when ONC auditors knock on your door.

The due diligence must be a continual process, not just “once and done”. The laws are changing and Health and Human Services (HHS)’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is implementing new risk audits in 2012 to test your readiness. New breach notification and accounting of disclosure rules are imminent and will further tighten the laws. Also, many institutions focus on the Privacy Rules, while paying less attention to the Security Rules. The privacy rules focus on the “what,” while the security rules focus on the “how” of compliance.

To protect yourself, you should be doing self assessments using both internal and external auditors. Anything you do for yourself should be considered for your business associates.

Simple Encryption Goes a Long Way

Most accidental large-scale breaches are caused by lost or stolen electronic devices. The small one or two patient breaches are much less of a publicity problem but still require a risk assessment. The small breaches are going to happen; it is inevitable. The large breaches carry a higher degree of severity.

To prevent large breaches, it is essential that BAs which use electronics have the same tight policies and procedures in place that you do (or should). They can go beyond the HIPAA-mandated policies. One practice that should be implemented is encryption.

Remember, a lost electronic device that contains encrypted data is not considered a reportable breach. Encryption is a logical first step that, while not yet HIPAA mandated, will save considerable pain and expense over time. Notice it is only a first step. There are other security technologies available that will call a central location to pinpoint a device’s location. Further, they can wipe themselves clean if not accessed properly or in a given timeframe.

Paper Breaches Also a Concern

And providers shouldn’t lose sight of paper medical records and how BAs are using them. In fact, many breaches to date have involved paper. Understand how your BAs use paper records and patient information. Is it going off site? If so, there should be established policies and procedures.

Any access to paper records and appropriate destruction of those records must be HIPAA compliant. Locked bins for disposal and state-of-the-art shredders are a must at the provider’s site and the BA’s office. Do not let paper records lay around on desks and make sure all personnel are trained in the handling of paper records.

Training and Education for All

Training and educating are the foundation of any compliance program. BAs should have an in-depth training and education program that is as robust as that of the covered entity. Best practices make training an ongoing, living process with regular updates and mandatory attendance at classes.

Making the effort to fend off unauthorized disclosures will go a long way toward mitigating risk. Staying in front of the threat curve is difficult but not impossible. Remember to apply lessons learned to your BAs so you aren’t the only one with egg on your face!

Guest Post: Small Breaches Still Reportable – Current State of HIPAA Breach Notification

Posted on November 3, 2011 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.


Guest Blogger: Jan McDavid is General Counsel and Compliance Officer at HealthPort, a Release of Information and Audit Management Technology company. You can read more of Jan’s posts on the HealthPort blog.

The following is a 4 part series of blog posts on the HIPAA Breach Notification Rules. Here’s a link to read all of the HIPAA Breach Notification Rules guest posts.

In the world of release of information (ROI), we see the breach of one or two records much more frequently than the massive, over-500 events. Smaller, one- or two-record breaches do not require immediate notification to HHS. The HITECH Act says they should be aggregated and sent to HHS at the end of each year. In 2010, the agency received more than 25,000 reports of smaller breaches affecting more than 50,000 individuals. The complete Annual Report to Congress (PDF) from HHS for 2009 and 2010 is available online.

The most common, inadvertent breaches within the ROI process involve sending the wrong record to the wrong person or third party. It is usually human error that produces these breaches. For example, the CE gets a written request from an insurance company, attorney or patient for medical record #12345. Someone pulls the wrong medical record either paper-based or electronic, say medical record #12344 and sends it. The result—a breach!

Training, education, skilled staff and solid procedures are the best approach to minimizing human error-based breaches, but they are inevitable. If and when it happens, the CE must evaluate sending a notification to the patient.

Another observation about breaches is that reactions to them seem to be very polarizing. Sometimes we see “breach fatigue” by patients. They hear so much about breaches that any leakage of their information is considered “no big deal” and simply a reality of modern, high-tech times. “After all, who really cares about the appendectomy I had ten years ago?” The opposite pole is that some patients become very upset and exhibit a sense of great concern.

Ultimately, the balance between a patient’s right of confidentiality and the provider’s needs for workflow consistency will continue to evolve. In the meantime, until a final breach notification rule is released, every CE must determine for itself how patient notices are analyzed and handled.

Guest Post: Expect New Rules to Expand Notification – Current State of HIPAA Breach Notification

Posted on October 27, 2011 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.


Guest Blogger: Jan McDavid is General Counsel and Compliance Officer at HealthPort, a Release of Information and Audit Management Technology company. You can read more of Jan’s posts on the HealthPort blog.

The following is a 4 part series of blog posts on the HIPAA Breach Notification Rules.

It is widely expected that Health and Human Service (HHS) final disclosure rules will mandate notification be done in every case. Should this occur as predicted, additional patient education will be needed to avoid the concerns mentioned above.

Further complicating matters is the fact that hospitals must adhere to HHS rules AND those at the state level. State laws in some cases are more onerous than federal laws and they continue to morph. Just trying to stay on top of all the changes may be reason enough to disclose every instance of breached information. Whether it contains protected health information (PHI) or not, some states require patient notification in every instance of the inadvertent release of certain i.d. information.

In next week’s post, we’ll cover whether small breaches are still reportable.

Guest Post: Over-Notifying Also Carries Risk – Current State of Breach Notification

Posted on October 13, 2011 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.


Guest Blogger: Jan McDavid is General Counsel and Compliance Officer at HealthPort, a Release of Information and Audit Management Technology company. You can read more of Jan’s posts on the HealthPort blog.

The following is a 4 part series of blog posts on the HIPAA Breach Notification Rules.

Some hospitals feel that, since the risk analysis only produces subjective results, why bother? They believe that the effort and expense incurred derives no real benefit for CE or patient, and they just notify the potentially affected patient in every instance.

In my opinion, notifying the patient for each breach is a little risky in itself. Patients often have no context in which to view a breach.

For example, losing a flash drive containing unencrypted PHI on 1,000 patients entails obvious risks – the risk of someone finding and misuing the information, for example. The law rightfully requires patient notification in such cases. However, if a patient’s record is inadvertently mailed to a house number that does not exist (perhaps due to a typo which transposed two digits), chances are good that the post office will either return the records to the sender or else the package will go undelivered.

If the records are not accounted for, it is generally accepted that it should be considered a breach; however, telling the patient this may raise an alarm about something that probably will not happen. A thorough risk analysis, although subjective, might conclude that such a breach did NOT have a “substantial risk of reputational or financial harm” to the patient. This was apparently HHS’s thinking when it required the risk analysis to be conducted.

In next week’s post, we’ll cover the possible changes to the breach notification rules.

Guest Post: Current State of HIPAA Breach Notification – Notify Patients…or Not?

Posted on I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.


Guest Blogger: Jan McDavid is General Counsel and Compliance Officer at HealthPort, a Release of Information and Audit Management Technology company. You can read more of Jan’s posts on the HealthPort blog.

The following is a 4 part series of blog posts on the HIPAA Breach Notification Rules.

Eight thousand providers. One question. When do we notify patients of a breach? I hear this question several times a week from all types of covered entities; hospitals, clinics and physician offices. Many are confused or misinformed about the answer. Furthermore, real world experience varies dramatically. Some providers notify everyone. Others notify only when necessary. What’s the answer?

First and foremost, you do not have to notify the patient each and every time there is a breach of protected health information (PHI). The law requires notification only if you meet one of two conditions:
1) When 500 or more records have been breached at the same time, you must notify the patients involved, OR
2) When you as the covered entity (CE) have conducted the required “risk analysis” and determined the patient (or patients) could suffer substantial financial or reputational harm.

The issue with the second requirement is the term “substantial”. It is very subjective and not fully defined within the rules. Conducting a risk analysis and determining the extent would appear to be a classic case of the fox guarding the hen house. As such, many observers expected hospitals NOT to notify, or perhaps under-notify, as the cost of a breach can be very high — both direct costs and the soft cost of reputational harm to the CE. However, we see providers taking a “better safe than sorry” approach and over-notifying.

In next week’s post, we’ll cover the risks of over-notifying after a breach.

HIPAA Lawsuit – PHI by Un-encrypted Email

Posted on December 29, 2010 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

In kind of ironic timing, the news was recently reported of a patient talking to lawyers about a possible lawsuit against a doctor who sent her protected health information (PHI) to his home email in an un-encrypted format. The irony is that for the past week, my post on Email not being HIPAA secure has been having a really good discussion happening in the comments about these very issues (you should go read through the comments, they’re very interesting).

One interesting part of the above news story is that it didn’t even include the most common personal information used for identity theft. Certainly a person’s name and medical information should be kept private as well and could have consequences related to its release on the internet. However, it definitely doesn’t bring out the privacy critics like a breach of financial related info would bring.

While I personally hate lawsuits, a part of me kind of hopes that this or some other lawsuit happens related to email and PHI. Not because I like lawsuits or I want someone to be held responsible. Mostly because we could use some legal precedent to better enable those who want to use technology like email. Until the precedence is set (or a more specific law), I think that many people are just too afraid to use email for any sort of health care related communication.

In the comments I mentioned above, someone even commented about them wanting a doctor who would let them waive their right to privacy in the name of convenience. Basically, they would rather use email to communicate even PHI at the risk of someone seeing their health information so that they can use communication tools like email in their healthcare. I bet there are a lot more people who would opt in for this also. The problem is that the law is such that I don’t know many doctors who are willing to take the risk even if the patient gives them permission.

The best alternative right now is the patient portal where a patient receives an email saying something has been added or updated on the portal and invites them to login to the private secured portal to see the PHI or other health information. Not perfect and not that broadly adopted.

Lots of other issues related to email with doctors, but at least resolving the privacy and security ones would allow us to focus on those other issues.