A hospital’s breach notification to the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) led to a Resolution Agreement, payment of $400,000 and a Corrective Action Plan for an east coast health system. On September 23, 2016, OCR issued a press release advising that Woman & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island (“WIH”) a member of Care New England Health System (“CNE”) notified OCR of a reportable breach in November of 2012, stemming from its discovery that unencrypted backup tapes containing electronic Protected Health Information (“PHI”) were missing from two of its facilities. CNE provides centralized corporate support to the covered entities under its common ownership and control, including technical support and information security for WIH’s information systems, as its business associate. Although WIH had in place a business associate agreement (“BAA”) with CNE, it was dated from March of 2005 and had not been updated since implementation and enforcement of the HIPAA Omnibus Final Rule.

OCR’s investigation of WIH’s HIPAA Compliance program, triggered by the report of the missing tapes, uncovered the outdated BAAs. WIH updated their BAA on August 28, 2015, as a result of OCR’s investigation. OCR then determined that from September 23, 2014, the date enforcement of the Final Rule began, until August 28, 2015, WIH impermissibly disclosed the PHI of at least 14,004 individuals to its business associate when WIH provided CNE with access to PHI without obtaining satisfactory assurances, in the form of a written business associate agreement, that CNE would appropriately safeguard the PHI. The settlement was reached without any admission of liability by CNE or WIH.

The settlement is a jolt to many covered entities and their business associates for a number of reasons. The key take-aways are: (1) There is an inference in the OCR’s actions that a well worded BAA, wherein the business associates agrees to abide by the specifications required by the Privacy and Security Rules, is sufficient to satisfy the covered entity’s obligation to obtain “satisfactory assurances” the business associate will appropriately safeguard the PHI (meaning those often lengthy and burdensome security questionnaires or audits business associates are being asked to complete may be unnecessary and not required); (2) documentation of intent and action, including policies, procedures and BAAs, is extremely important in establishing HIPAA Compliance (i.e., the fact that the mistake occurred—tapes went missing—is being treated as the result of the absence of a written agreement, justifying the enforcement action, when in reality it is likely, or at least conceivable, that human error, inadvertence or lack of attention is the root cause and this could have occurred even if an updated BAA was in place and being followed); and (3) policies, procedures and continuous training and retraining of the workforce handling PHI is imperative to a successful HIPAA compliance program, and remains on the radar of any OCR investigation.

A copy of the Resolution Agreement and Corrective Action Plan may be found on the OCR website at http://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/compliance-enforcement/agreements/wih.
OCR’s sample BAA may be found at http://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/covered-entities/sample-business-associate-agreement-provisions/index.html.