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ProPublica Report Reveals Biggest HIPAA Violators

December 30, 2015
by Rajiv Leventhal
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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.

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