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HIPAA compliance - Everything to know

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is a federal law passed in 1996 that includes provisions to protect the privacy and security of individuals' health information. Entities like health plans, healthcare providers, and healthcare clearinghouses that handle protected health information (PHI) are required to comply with HIPAA regulations.

HIPAA establishes national standards for electronic healthcare transactions. It also requires protections for the privacy and security of PHI. Failing to comply with HIPAA can result in hefty financial penalties. Therefore, it is crucial for covered entities and their business associates to have a thorough understanding of HIPAA and implement comprehensive compliance programs.

HIPAA Privacy Rule

The HIPAA Privacy Rule regulates how PHI can be used and disclosed. It establishes safeguards to protect the privacy of medical records and other PHI.

PHI refers to any health information tied to an individual’s medical history, conditions, treatments or payments. This includes demographic data like names, addresses, and full-face photos. The Privacy Rule applies to all forms of PHI including paper, electronic, oral and visual.

The Privacy Rule defines requirements in these key areas:

  • Who is Covered - Health plans, healthcare providers, healthcare clearinghouses and business associates are covered entities obligated to comply.

  • Disclosure of PHI - Strict limits on when PHI can be used or disclosed, with few exceptions. Patient authorization is generally required.

  • Patient Rights - Gives patients rights to access and amend their medical records and to know who their PHI was disclosed to.

  • Administrative Safeguards - Policies, training, authorizations and other controls must safeguard PHI privacy.

Covered entities need clear Notice of Privacy Practices explaining how PHI is used and disclosed. Reasonable steps must be taken to limit incidental disclosures. Minimum necessary standard requires only essential PHI be shared for permitted purposes.

Overall, the Privacy Rule seeks to assure patients that their most sensitive health information will be properly protected and not misused.

HIPAA Security Rule

While the HIPAA Privacy Rule governs the use and disclosure of PHI, the HIPAA Security Rule focuses on the technical and physical safeguards required to ensure the confidentiality, integrity and security of electronic protected health information (ePHI).

The Security Rule mandates administrative, physical and technical safeguards such as:

  • Access Controls - Allow only authorized users to access ePHI (passwords, multi-factor authentication, encryption).

  • Audit Controls - Record activity on health IT systems for unauthorized access monitoring.

  • Integrity Controls - Prevent improper alteration or destruction of ePHI data.

  • Transmission Security - Protect ePHI transmitted over networks or portable media.

  • Physical Safeguards - Limited facility access, device security, disposal standards.

  • Administrative Safeguards - Security management, training, policies/procedures and documentation.

  • Organizational Requirements - Business associate agreements, risk analysis and management.

These safeguards aim to ensure the correct people can access the right data at the appropriate times while preventing unauthorized access, breach and misuse. The Security Rule establishes a national baseline for health data security practices.

HIPAA Breach Notification Rule

The HIPAA Breach Notification Rule outlines the response required when impermissible use or disclosure of PHI is discovered. The rule aims to promptly alert potentially impacted individuals and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) of any unauthorized PHI access.

Under the rule, covered entities must have policies and procedures to detect and investigate potential breaches. Various scenarios constitute a breach, including:

  • Hacking or IT system intrusion giving improper access to PHI

  • Lost, stolen or improperly disposed of equipment containing unsecured PHI

  • Unauthorized sharing, accessing or revealing of PHI

  • Accidental or improper transmission of PHI to an unauthorized recipient

If an impermissible PHI disclosure meets the definition of a breach, the covered entity must alert HHS and affected individuals in writing without unreasonable delay, but no later than 60 days after discovery. If over 500 people are impacted, media notice is also required.

For breaches involving more than 500 residents of a state or jurisdiction, notice must also be provided to prominent media outlets. The notifications must include details such as date of breach, types of data exposed, steps individuals can take to protect themselves, and actions the covered entity is taking to investigate and mitigate the breach.

HIPAA Enforcement and Penalties

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is responsible for enforcing the HIPAA regulations. OCR has the authority to conduct compliance reviews and investigations based on complaints or indications of non-compliance.

If covered entities are found to have violated HIPAA, OCR can impose civil monetary penalties. Individual penalties can be $100 to $50,000 or more per violation, depending on severity. The maximum combined penalty for ongoing non-compliance is $1.5 million per year.

Recent enforcement examples include:

  • 2018 - $16 million penalty for stolen laptop containing PHI of nearly 35,000 people.

  • 2019 - $2.175 million penalty for six disclosure incidents compromising over 6000 individuals’ data.

  • 2022 - $1.6 million settlement for impermissible disclosure of mental health records.

In addition to civil penalties, the Department of Justice can pursue criminal charges and imprisonment for knowing HIPAA breaches. False claims of HIPAA compliance can also result in fines or jail time.

Steps to Achieve HIPAA Compliance

To avoid enforcement actions and penalties, covered entities must implement an effective, organization-wide HIPAA compliance program. Key steps include:

  1. Appoint a HIPAA compliance officer - An accountable individual manages the compliance program.

  2. Conduct thorough risk analysis - Identify risks and vulnerabilities to PHI in your environment.

  3. Develop and update HIPAA policies - Document HIPAA procedures for privacy, security, breaches and training.

  4. Train employees - All workforce members must be regularly trained on HIPAA policies.

  5. Manage business associate agreements - Have BA contracts covering compliance, breaches, liability.

  6. Safeguard PHI - Implement physical, technical and administrative safeguards to secure PHI.

  7. Address mobile and cloud risks - Assess and protect PHI on mobile devices, remote computing, web apps.

  8. Have an incident response plan - Define response procedures in case of a potential breach.

  9. Regularly audit and update compliance - Periodically review controls, risks and procedures to maintain compliance.

  10. Document everything - Maintain records demonstrating your HIPAA compliance activities.

Achieving compliant operations requires an ongoing, concerted effort from leadership, HIPAA officers, IT, security teams, employees and business associates. Dedicated resources and ownership of the compliance program is key to reducing risk and avoiding strict penalties.

IPAA compliance represents a significant undertaking, the proper framework provides long-term benefits for individuals’ privacy rights and organizational reputation. Healthcare entities that proactively govern PHI with integrity foster critical patient trust and minimize regulatory exposure.