California hospitals and nursing homes take note – the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) takes data breaches seriously. Since June of this year, CDPH has imposed nearly $1.5 million in fines affecting 12 California health facilities. California Health and Safety Code 1280.15(a) requires covered health facilities to prevent unlawful or unauthorized access, use or disclosure of patient medical information.

Violations of this requirement can result in penalties of up to $25,000 per patient and up to $17,500 per subsequent occurrences of unlawful or unauthorized access, use or disclosure of that patients medical information

In its most recent wave of penalties, announced November 19, 2010, CDPH assessed fines totaling $792,500 against six hospitals and one nursing home that it determined failed to prevent unauthorized access to confidential patient medical information. In one case, a health facility was fined $310,000:

  • $60,000 because the facility failed to prevent unauthorized access and disclosure of one patient’s medical information by two employees on three occasions.
  • $250,000 because the facility failed to prevent the theft of 596 patients’ medical information

The larger penalty resulted in part when laboratory reports of 596 patients were lost. In its investigation, CDPH learned that the staff employee at the facility responsible for running and storing laboratory reports, and who had signed the facility’s confidentiality statement, placed lab reports in an outside locker, but did not lock the locker because the lock was not working and the locker door was broken. This staff member told CDPH the locker had been broken for several months, although he did not report it. The lab reports that were lost included patient names, Social Security numbers and laboratory results, among other personal information. 

Beyond that, California health facilities should be reminded of Cal. Health and Safety Code § 1280.15, which requires covered facilities to notify CDPH and affected individuals of “unlawful or unauthorized access to” personal health data within five business days after discovery of a breach. Late notices can result in fines of $100 per day for each patient affected, up to maximum of $250,000. Of course, health care providers also need to take into account the interim final rules, promulgated under the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (“HITECH”) Act and enforced by the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”), which require entities covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”) to report similar incidents.  Under the HIPAA rules, notice must be provided without “unreasonable delay.”

As the number of data security incidents in the health care industry continue to mount, CDPH’s enforcement activity should urge covered health facilities in California to pay greater attention to data security. As the incident above makes clear, simply requiring an employee to sign an acknowledgment of complying with facility data security policy will not be enough. Health facilities, including hospitals and nursing homes, need to continually assess their risks in this area and create a culture of data privacy and security across their organizations. This can only be accomplished through clear policy and frequent training and attention to the issue.