Lincare, a provider of respiratory and infusion therapy and medical equipment to in-home patients, has been ordered to pay $239,800 in civil money penalties for violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Privacy Rule.
This week a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Administrative Law Judge ruled in favor of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) actions to impose civil money penalties. According to OCR, this is only the second time in its history that OCR has sought civil money penalties for HIPAA Privacy Rule violations. In 2011, Maryland-based Cignet Health was ordered to pay a $4.3 million fine after an OCR investigation found that the company violated 41 patients’ rights by denying them access to their medical records.
According to a press release about the latest fine, OCR says it began investigating Clearwater, Fla.-based Lincare after an individual complained that a Lincare employee left behind documents containing the protected health information (PHI) of 278 patients after moving residences. “Over the course of the investigation, OCR found that Lincare had inadequate policies and procedures in place to safeguard patient information that was taken offsite, although employees, who provide health care services in patients’ homes, regularly removed material from the business premises,” the OCR press release stated. And OCR contends that although Lincare was aware of the complaint and OCR’s investigation, the company “subsequently took only minimal action to correct its policies and strengthen safeguards to ensure compliance with the HIPAA rules.”
“While OCR prefers to resolve issues through voluntary compliance, this case shows that we will take the steps necessary, including litigation, to obtain adequate remedies for violations of the HIPAA Rules,” OCR Director Jocelyn Samuels said in the release. “The decision in this case validates the findings of our investigation. Under the ALJ’s ruling, all covered entities, including home health providers, must ensure that, if their workforce members take protected health information offsite, they have adequate policies and procedures that provide for the reasonable and appropriate safeguarding of that PHI, whether in paper or electronic form.”
Also according to the OCR report, Lincare claimed that it had not violated HIPAA because the PHI was “stolen” by the individual who discovered it on the premises previously shared with the Lincare employee.
The HHS Administrative Law Judge rejected this argument and sided with OCR’s opinion that Lincare was “obligated to take reasonable steps to protect its PHI from theft.”