ProPublica Report Reveals Biggest HIPAA Violators | Healthcare Informatics Magazine | Health IT | Information Technology Skip to content Skip to navigation

ProPublica Report Reveals Biggest HIPAA Violators

December 30, 2015
by Rajiv Leventhal
| Reprints

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Kaiser Permanente, Walgreens, and CVS Health are among the most well-known repeat offenders of violating HIPAA laws, according to a new ProPublica report.

These organizations are among hundreds of healthcare providers nationwide that repeatedly violated Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) laws between 2011 and 2014, according to the ProPublica analysis of federal data. Interestingly, the report also found that in more than 200 instances over those four years, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), simply reminded CVS of its obligations under the law or accepted its pledges to improve privacy protections, but did not take any other punitive action. CVS did once pay a $2.25 million penalty in 2009 for dumping prescription bottles in unsecured dumpsters, the report noted.

While some of the bigger organizations mentioned in the story released statements saying that they take privacy seriously, over the course of this year, ProPublica has reported on loopholes in HIPAA and the federal government’s lax enforcement of the law. A story earlier in December detailed how OCR only rarely imposed sanctions for small-scale privacy breaches that caused lasting harm, for instance. As such, according to the report, “The data analyzed for this story shows the problem goes beyond isolated incidents, carrying few consequences even for those who violate the law the most.”

The story quotes Joy Pritts, a health information privacy and security consultant who served as chief privacy officer for HHS’ Office of the National Coordinator for Healthcare Information Technology (ONC) until last year, who said, “The patterns you’ve identified makes a person wonder how far a company has to go before HHS recognizes a pattern of noncompliance.”

More specifically, the VA was the most persistent HIPAA violator in the data. According to ProPublica, “Time and again, records show, VA employees snooped on one another and on patients they weren’t treating. One employee accessed her ex-husband’s medical record more than 260 times. Another employee peeked at the records of a patient 61 times and posted details on Facebook. A third improperly shared a vet’s health information with his parole officer.”

All told, VA hospitals, clinics and pharmacies violated the law 220 times from 2011 to 2014. For the story, ProPublica counted as violations those complaints that resulted in either corrective-action plans submitted by a health provider or “technical assistance” provided by the Office for Civil Rights on how to comply with the law. Nonetheless, the VA has never been called out publicly by the Office for Civil Rights or sanctioned for its string of violations, according to the report. Under the same qualifications  that found VA guilty 220 times the last four years, CVS Health was found in violation 204 times, Walgreens 183 times, Kaiser Permanente 146 times, and Walmart 71 times.

What’s more, using data provided by OCR under the Freedom of Information Act, ProPublica is launching a new tool, HIPAA Helper, which allows users to look up reports of privacy violations by provider for the first time. OCR’s material often referred to the same entities by multiple names, but the Helper took standardizes organizations’ names to make searching easier, the report said.

Get the latest information on Health IT and attend other valuable sessions at this two-day Summit providing healthcare leaders with educational content, insightful debate and dialogue on the future of healthcare and technology.

Learn More



Healthcare Execs Anticipate High Cost Returns from Predictive Analytics Use

Healthcare executives are dedicating budget to predictive analytics, and are forecasting significant cost savings in return, according to new research from the Illinois-based Society of Actuaries.

Adam Boehler Tapped by Azar to Serve as Senior Value-Based Care Advisor

Adam Boehler, currently director of CMMI, has also been named the senior advisor for value-based transformation and innovation, HHS Secretary Alex Azar announced.

Vivli Launches Clinical Research Data-Sharing Platform

On July 19 a new global data-sharing and analytics platform called Vivli was unveiled. The nonprofit group’s mission is to promote, coordinate and facilitate scientific sharing and reuse of clinical research data.

Survey: More Effective IT Needed to Improve Patient Safety

In a Health Catalyst survey, physicians, nurses and healthcare executives said ineffective information technology, and the lack of real-time warnings for possible harm events, are key obstacles to achieving their organizations' patient safety goals.

Physicians Still Reluctant to Embrace Virtual Tech, Survey Finds

While consumers and physicians agree that virtual healthcare holds great promise for transforming care delivery, physicians still remain reluctant to embrace the technologies, according to a new Deloitte Center for Health Solutions survey.

Geisinger, AstraZeneca Partner on Asthma App Suite

Geisinger has partnered with pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca to create a suite of products that integrate into the electronic health record and engage asthma patients and their providers in co-managing the disease.