One of your employees discloses your organization’s patient information to a soon-to-be new employer for use in generating business at the new employer’s competing business, and your company has to settle with the New York State Attorney General for HIPAA violations. Make sense?

This is what happened according to a published settlement agreement (pdf) that was reached between the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, whose office announced the settlement on December 2. As part of the settlement, and in addition to agreeing to pay $15,000, URMC submitted to an extensive review of its policies and procedures by the Office of Attorney General (OAG), and agreed to report certain breaches of PHI to the OAG for the next three years, among other things.

In this case, a URMC nurse practitioner, who was planning on leaving URMC to work for another provider, asked URMC for a list of all of the patients she treated while at URMC; URMC provided a list of 3,403 patients to her. Without getting patient authorization, the nurse practitioner provided that list to her new employer. The new employer then sent a mailing to those patients letting them know of the nurse practitioner’s move and that they could choose to be treated at the new company.

Some health care professionals may take the position that the patients are their patients, that they have the treatment relationship with the patients, and therefore there is no HIPAA issue in situations like these. Not so fast. The practice may own the data, not the providers it employs. And, patients may look to the practice, and not the particular provider, as the party responsible for safeguarding their protected health information. This appears to be the case here as URMC learned about the breach when some of its patients called to complain that they had received letters from the other provider.

Electronic medical records and related systems are essential to a functioning healthcare organization and health care providers often have broad access to patient files to do their jobs. So, stopping these types of incidents seems virtually impossible. Minimizing the risk, however, is possible through straight forward policies and training, as well as systems that can limit access to data to the extent appropriate for the business and applicable law. Non-compete and other agreements with workers also may be useful in addressing these and related risks involving patient data when healthcare workers move on.

This development is an important reminder for covered entities and business associates about HIPAA compliance and the practical realities of business that also have data security implications. Covered entities and business associates also should remember that state attorneys general have enforcement authority under HIPAA, and they are using it.

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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.