We recently reported here that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is issuing proposed regulations to implement statutory amendments under the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (the “HITECH Act”). These proposed regulations contain a number of important points to think about for HIPAA covered entities (and business associates), even though these rules are in proposed form. One is avoiding HIPAA violations involving “willful neglect," which under the HITECH Act will require a formal investigation and civil penalties.

To date, the Secretary of HHS has attempted to resolve complaints and certain violations by informal means, as required by § 160.312 of the current regulations. A significant change to the HIPAA enforcement scheme in the HITECH Act requires that if a preliminary investigation of the facts of a complaint indicates a possible violation due to willful neglect, the Secretary is required to commence a formal investigation. If the formal investigation finds a HIPAA violation involving willful neglect, the Secretary must impose a civil money penalty.

What is “willful neglect”?

Willful neglect is defined at § 160.401 as the “conscious, intentional failure or reckless indifference to the obligation to comply with the administrative simplification provision violated.” The term not only presumes actual or constructive knowledge on the part of the covered entity that a violation is virtually certain to occur, but also encompasses a conscious intent or degree of recklessness with regard to the entity’s compliance obligations.

So what does that mean, what are some examples? The proposed regulations provide the following examples:

  1. A covered entity disposed of several hard drives containing electronic protected health information in an unsecured dumpster, in violation of § 164.530(c) and § 164.310(d)(2)(i). HHS’s investigation reveals that the covered entity had failed to implement any policies and procedures to reasonably and appropriately safeguard protected health information during the disposal process.
  2. A covered entity failed to respond to an individual’s request that it restrict its uses and disclosures of protected health information about the individual. HHS’s investigation reveals that the covered entity does not have any policies and procedures in place for consideration of the restriction requests it receives and refuses to accept any requests for restrictions from individual patients who inquire.
  3. A covered entity’s employee lost an unencrypted laptop that contained unsecured protected health information. HHS’s investigation reveals the covered entity feared its reputation would be harmed if information about the incident became public and, therefore, decided not to provide notification as required by § 164.400 et seq.

In addition to having actual or constructive knowledge of one or more violations, the covered entities in the examples above, particularly Example 1, failed to develop or implement compliant policies and procedures and, thus, demonstrated either conscious intent or reckless disregard with respect to the compliance obligations under HIPAA.

Based on the proposed regulations, covered entities can no longer expect the velvet hand of the regulators to resolve a violation informally in all cases. Covered entities that fail to have policies and procedure and make a good faith compliance effort likely will find themselves subject to mandatory formal investigations and penalties.

Covered entities like the one in example 1 above might want to consider certain precautions, including:

• maintaining a record retention policy,
• maintaining media re-use policy,
• maintaining a data destruction policy,
• maintaining an e-discovery policy, and
• and engaging a good data destruction/shredding company.

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Photo of Joseph J. Lazzarotti Joseph J. Lazzarotti

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a principal in the Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently co-leads the firm’s Privacy, Data and Cybersecurity practice group, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP)…

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a principal in the Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently co-leads the firm’s Privacy, Data and Cybersecurity practice group, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) with the International Association of Privacy Professionals. Trained as an employee benefits lawyer, focused on compliance, Joe also is a member of the firm’s Employee Benefits practice group.

In short, his practice focuses on the matrix of laws governing the privacy, security, and management of data, as well as the impact and regulation of social media. He also counsels companies on compliance, fiduciary, taxation, and administrative matters with respect to employee benefit plans.

Privacy and cybersecurity experience – Joe counsels multinational, national and regional companies in all industries on the broad array of laws, regulations, best practices, and preventive safeguards. The following are examples of areas of focus in his practice:

  • Advising health care providers, business associates, and group health plan sponsors concerning HIPAA/HITECH compliance, including risk assessments, policies and procedures, incident response plan development, vendor assessment and management programs, and training.
  • Coached hundreds of companies through the investigation, remediation, notification, and overall response to data breaches of all kinds – PHI, PII, payment card, etc.
  • Helping organizations address questions about the application, implementation, and overall compliance with European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and, in particular, its implications in the U.S., together with preparing for the California Consumer Privacy Act.
  • Working with organizations to develop and implement video, audio, and data-driven monitoring and surveillance programs. For instance, in the transportation and related industries, Joe has worked with numerous clients on fleet management programs involving the use of telematics, dash-cams, event data recorders (EDR), and related technologies. He also has advised many clients in the use of biometrics including with regard to consent, data security, and retention issues under BIPA and other laws.
  • Assisting clients with growing state data security mandates to safeguard personal information, including steering clients through detailed risk assessments and converting those assessments into practical “best practice” risk management solutions, including written information security programs (WISPs). Related work includes compliance advice concerning FTC Act, Regulation S-P, GLBA, and New York Reg. 500.
  • Advising clients about best practices for electronic communications, including in social media, as well as when communicating under a “bring your own device” (BYOD) or “company owned personally enabled device” (COPE) environment.
  • Conducting various levels of privacy and data security training for executives and employees
  • Supports organizations through mergers, acquisitions, and reorganizations with regard to the handling of employee and customer data, and the safeguarding of that data during the transaction.
  • Representing organizations in matters involving inquiries into privacy and data security compliance before federal and state agencies including the HHS Office of Civil Rights, Federal Trade Commission, and various state Attorneys General.

Benefits counseling experience – Joe’s work in the benefits counseling area covers many areas of employee benefits law. Below are some examples of that work:

  • As part of the Firm’s Health Care Reform Team, he advises employers and plan sponsors regarding the establishment, administration and operation of fully insured and self-funded health and welfare plans to comply with ERISA, IRC, ACA/PPACA, HIPAA, COBRA, ADA, GINA, and other related laws.
  • Guiding clients through the selection of plan service providers, along with negotiating service agreements with vendors to address plan compliance and operations, while leveraging data security experience to ensure plan data is safeguarded.
  • Counsels plan sponsors on day-to-day compliance and administrative issues affecting plans.
  • Assists in the design and drafting of benefit plan documents, including severance and fringe benefit plans.
  • Advises plan sponsors concerning employee benefit plan operation, administration and correcting errors in operation.

Joe speaks and writes regularly on current employee benefits and data privacy and cybersecurity topics and his work has been published in leading business and legal journals and media outlets, such as The Washington Post, Inside Counsel, Bloomberg, The National Law Journal, Financial Times, Business Insurance, HR Magazine and NPR, as well as the ABA Journal, The American Lawyer, Law360, Bender’s Labor and Employment Bulletin, the Australian Privacy Law Bulletin and the Privacy, and Data Security Law Journal.

Joe served as a judicial law clerk for the Honorable Laura Denvir Stith on the Missouri Court of Appeals.