A private practice (Practice) comprising three physicians has agreed to pay the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) $125,000 to settle potential violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). While the fine is small compared with OCR’s October announcement of the $16 million settlement with Anthem, it confirms OCR’s ongoing commitment to enforcing HIPAA compliance, regardless of an organization’s size or the number of impacted individuals. Additionally noteworthy is that this enforcement action originated with a civil rights complaint filed by the Connecticut Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Connecticut, which initiated a joint investigation into the matter with OCR.
In February 2015, a patient of the Practice contacted a local television station to inform a reporter of a dispute with one of the Practice’s physicians related to the patient’s service animal. When the reporter contacted the physician for comment, the physician responded to the inquiry and, in the process, released the patient’s PHI to the public, even though the Practice’s privacy officer counseled the physician not to respond to the reporter or to respond with “no comment.” OCR determined that the physician’s conversation with the media demonstrated reckless disregard for the patient’s privacy rights, and further found that the Practice failed to take corrective actions or sanction the physician following the impermissible disclosure.