We are definitely no meteorologists over here but if there’s one pattern that we’ve gotten pretty good at predicting, it’s the government’s focus on HIPAA non-compliance. And with another right of access settlement hitting our inboxes just yesterday – it’s looking like HIPAA enforcement season is in full effect.
Arbour, Inc., d.b.a Arbour Hospital (“Arbour”), was the latest to get caught in the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) storm – but instead of heavy rainfall and thunder, the Massachusetts-based behavioral health provider was hit with a whooping $65,000 fine and corrective action plan. The announcement marks the 17th right of access settlement since the OCR declared their enforcement initiative back in the fall of 2019, proving that whoever said that lightning never strikes the same place twice clearly didn’t know HIPAA.
Arbour first showed up on the OCR’s radar back in July of 2019, after they received a complaint alleging that the practice had failed to respond to a patient’s record request in a timely manner. Despite the OCR providing technical assistance, the practice took a rain check on providing record access and a second patient complaint came rolling in later that month. As a result of the OCR’s investigation, Arbour finally provided the patient with their records more than 5 months after the patient’s initial request – making the perfect storm for a HIPAA violation.
With 17 cases settled and $1,068,500 collected in fines since the right of access initiative began, it’s looking like when it rains, it pours as far as OCR enforcement is concerned. And if the numbers aren’t telling enough, Acting OCR Director Robinsue Frohboese made their storm-warning loud and clear in her latest statement: “Health care providers have a duty to provide their patients with timely access to their own health records, and OCR will hold providers accountable to this obligation so that patients can exercise their rights and get needed health information to be active participants in their health care.”
A key takeaway from the 17 practices’ caught in the government’s flood zone? In more than half of the published settlements, the organization was notified twice by the OCR and provided with technical assistance. And if they had listened to the first warning siren, they could’ve potentially avoided the settlement entirely. Since taking timely action in response to a patient’s records request has shown to be an ongoing issue for covered entities of all specialties and size – with the proposed HIPAA Privacy Rule changes shortening the record response time from 30 days to 15 days, we can foresee dark skies ahead if practices don’t start complying.
So, how do you avoid the hailstorm that comes with an OCR audit? Simply put, ensuring your practice adheres to state and federal Patient Right of Access laws while also having the necessary policies and procedures to back it up is a great place to start. But in order to fully weather the elements of government enforcement, you must meet ALL of the requirements that fall under the HIPAA umbrella and keep your compliance program a priority come rain or shine.