As we reported, state Attorneys General have authority to enforce the privacy and security regulations under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), pursuant to the authority granted under the Health Information Technology for Clinical and Economic Health (HITECH) Act. Shortly after announcing plans to seek legislation requiring stronger protections for personal and financial information, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller reached a settlement with a dentist in his state, Joseph Beck, for improperly dumping patient records in violation of state law and HIPAA. The dentist agreed to pay $12,000 in fines.
According to news reports, over 60 boxes containing years of dental records pertaining to over 5,600 patients, and including very sensitive personal information, were found in a dumpster. Apparently, the dentist hired a third party vendor to dispose of the records; that vendor likely was a business associate under HIPAA and, if so, also subject to the HIPAA privacy and security rules.
For small medical or dental practices, as for other professional service businesses such as lawyers, accountants, and insurance brokers, data security can be both daunting and expensive if there is a breach. Like many businesses, small businesses rely on third party vendors to perform certain activities. When those activities involve personal information of the business’ customers, the business owner should be paying more attention. Ask the vendor about what steps it has in place to protect information, does it have a written information security plan, it is licensed, does it have insurance in the event of a breach, does it train employees about data security, and, yes, how does it dispose the records and data it is being asked to handle. In many states, businesses are required to have language in the service agreements with vendors about data security when the vendors are going to handle personal information. There is a similar provision under HIPAA for business associates.
It is troubling to see that sensitive records are still being found in dumpsters even after the many widely-publicized data breaches. But, as here, the owner of the records may not be able to avoid responsibility by shifting it to the vendor.