January 29, 2024

Guiding Through HIPAA: Five Strategies To Help Enhance Compliance

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) stands as a pivotal legislation that ensures the protection of sensitive medical information. It serves as a cornerstone for data privacy and security provisions, specifically aimed at safeguarding the confidentiality of patient information. HIPAA comprises various rules and standards, prominently the Privacy and Security Rules, which set national benchmarks for use, disclosure, and safeguarding protected health information (PHI) along with electronic protected health information (ePHI).

HIPAA regulations are applicable to various organizations in healthcare, like hospitals, medical clinics, pharmacies, and others. There are other types of organizations that fall under HIPAA rules such as health plans and health care clearinghouses. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) considers organizations who must follow HIPAA rules to be “covered entities.” Another type of organization which must safeguard PHI is a “business associate” who performs functions or activities, involving PHI, on behalf of a covered entity. The HHS defines a covered entity and business associate as:

  • Covered Entities: Health plans, health care clearinghouses, and any health care provider who transmits health information in electronic form in connection with transactions for which the Secretary of HHS has adopted standards under HIPAA.
  • Business Associates: A person or organization, other than a member of a covered entity's workforce, that performs certain functions or activities on behalf of, or provides certain services to, a covered entity that involve the use or disclosure of individually identifiable health information.

HIPAA Violations and Penalties

HIPAA violations encompass various types of information breaches, unauthorized disclosures of PHI, improper access or disposal of PHI, and failure to provide necessary HIPAA training. Non-compliance penalties can range from civil monetary fines starting at $100 per violation and escalating up to $50,000 per violation, depending on the seriousness of the offense. Criminal penalties may be enforced for deliberate violations.

The penalty structure for HIPAA violations is categorized into four tiers, each carrying fines based on the level of culpability:

  • Tier 1: Inadvertent violations where the covered entity was unaware and couldn't realistically avoid the breach, with fines ranging from $100 to $50,000 per violation.
  • Tier 2: Violations where the entity should have been aware of but couldn't avoid despite reasonable care. These also do not amount to willful neglect. Fines range from $1,000 to $50,000 per violation.
  • Tier 3: Violations resulting from "willful neglect" of HIPAA Rules. Even with attempted correction, these violations carry fines between $10,000 and $50,000 per violation.
  • Tier 4: Violations of HIPAA Rules due to willful neglect, without an attempt to rectify within 30 days, resulting in fines starting at $50,000 per violation.

Entities that fail to adhere to HIPAA standards are subject to severe penalties delineated in 45 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) Parts 160, 162, and 164. These penalties extend beyond mere financial repercussions and may necessitate corrective action plans to address compliance deficiencies. States attorneys general can also initiate civil actions, resulting in monetary damages.

It's also important to note that there may be HIPAA violation penalties for employees established by the employer in the HIPAA sanctions policy. For a first violation with minor consequences, the penalty might be a verbal warning and/or refresher training. However, for more serious violations, or if there has been a previous warning, penalties may escalate to a written warning, suspension, or even contract termination.

Recent Trends and Compliance Checklist

Since the Privacy Rule's compliance update in April 2003, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has received over 342,032 HIPAA complaints and initiated more than 1,178 compliance reviews, resolving 99% of these cases (338,401).

HIPAA compliance stands as a crucial element in healthcare operations, safeguarding patient privacy and confidentiality. To achieve a better understanding of its requirements, potential violations, and penalties as well as to adopt a proactive compliance approach, organizations should consider utilizing a HIPAA compliance checklist. A HIPAA compliance checklist can help ensure that organizations subject to the Administrative Simplification provisions of HIPAA are aware of the specific provisions they must comply with and the best methods to achieve and sustain HIPAA compliance. Additionally, it's essential for organizations to understand the compliance obligations of their business partners to ensure they maintain HIPAA compliance when required.

Key Strategies and Resources for Healthcare Institutions

HIPAA regulations, existing for over 20 years, continue to pose challenges for healthcare institutions. Complying with these complex rules is vital to safeguarding patient data and reducing organizational risk. Below are five strategies to get your HIPAA compliance program on track:

  1. Provide comprehensive and accessible staff training: Providing comprehensive and ongoing training on HIPAA regulations, confidentiality practices, and cybersecurity measures is crucial. Online modules aid in easy comprehension and documentation of completion, which enhances compliance demonstration.
  2. Keep policies and procedures up-to-date: Regularly updating and reviewing HIPAA compliance programs is essential. Topics should include risk assessment procedures, data protection measures, and breach protocols for all communication mediums.
  3. Address cybersecurity threats strategically: Robust security software and continuous staff education are imperative to combat evolving cyber threats like phishing, ransomware, and malware. Healthcare facilities should implement the 405(d) cybersecurity practices or another recognized security program.
  4. Define medical record request procedures: Establishing clear procedures for handling patient requests and third-party access is essential. Adhering to HIPAA guidelines while allowing patient information accessibility is critical.
  5. Be prepared for investigations: Preparing for Office for Civil Rights (OCR) investigations involves maintaining updated policies, thorough staff training, risk analyses, and robust security controls, which reduce the chances of HIPAA breaches.

Stericycle offers Steri-Safe® HIPAA Training & Compliance Solutions, which provides comprehensive online training and resources for managing HIPAA compliance. Maintaining an ongoing HIPAA compliance training program is crucial to protecting patient privacy and shielding your practice from potential fines and penalties for violations under HIPAA and HITECH regulations. By accessing Steri-Safe®, organizations can benefit from:

  • HIPAA Online Trainings
  • HIPAA Privacy & Security Manual Templates
  • Interactive HIPAA Policy Navigator
  • Specialist On-Site Support
  • Regulated Medical Waste Disposal
  • Tailored Service Levels

Download our info sheet for a more in-depth look at the five HIPAA compliance strategies. At Stericycle, we offer a comprehensive program that includes assessment assistance, training, and more, serving as a valuable resource when you are creating, modifying, and sustaining your HIPAA compliance program.

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