In this era of HIPAA enforcement, it is important to understand the fundamental role of the privacy regulations. Privacy outlines the big picture for compliance. Failing to understand and implement privacy's administrative, technical and physcial safeguards can be a costly miscalculation.
Privacy regulations have been in effect since 2003 and are updated regularly on the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) website.
These regulations list compliance requirements for protected health information (PHI) in all formats (oral, paper or electronic). Security regulations are a subset of privacy limited to PHI in electronic format (ePHI). Privacy encompasses the big picture for compliant access, use, and disclosure of all PHI, including ePHI. Investing the staff, resources and time necessary to meaningfully implement privacy regulations is the entrée to compliance and a prudent business decision.
Prior to 2009, regulated organizations were primarily self-monitoring. The lack of outside accountability precipitated the major investment of staff and resources allocated for HIPAA compliance being directed towards building and supporting electronic health records systems. Fewer resources were dedicated to the less concrete, yet more comprehensive, role of privacy. Responsibility for patients’ and clients’ rights; uses and disclosures of PHI; role-based access issues; business associates; and other privacy issues were disbursed over many departments. This resulted in insufficient compliance, lax oversight and a high occurrence of violations.
HITECH’s enactment in 2009 refocused HIPAA enforcement on the privacy regulations.
HITECH mandates the implementation of complaint and breach report procedures, requires accountability for management of PHI, establishes higher sanctions for violations including a new category for willful neglect, and initiated a random audit program for an expanded list of regulated organizations by HHS’ Office of Civil Rights (OCR).
More federal and state regulatory agencies, including FTC and states’ attorney generals, now coordinate with HHS’ enforcement actions. Their websites regularly post results of enforcement actions as notice and guidance for regulated organizations. Most violations settle with corrective action plans (CAPs); some include fines tipping millions of dollars.
Many CAPs require hiring auditors to monitor and report to HHS on CAP compliance, particularly revising policies and procedures and workforce training programs (basic privacy administrative safeguards) over a period of years. As the following three cases from HHS’ website confirm, HHS is serious about privacy compliance.
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cignet health corrective action plans (caps) cvs caremark office of civil rights (ocr) privacy protected health information (phi) u.s. department of health and human services (hhs) covered entities and business associates ehr ephi identity theft internet breach risk analysis risk management electronic health records federal trade commission (ftc) medicare triple-s management corporation