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Audits find organizations unaware of new data, privacy rules


By Joe Carlson
Posted: April 23, 2013 - 5:30 pm ET
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Simply knowing all the rules could prevent many of the problems plaguing data security and privacy among healthcare providers and insurers.

Nearly one-third of the 980 problems that HHS' Office for Civil Rights uncovered during privacy and data-security audits of 115 healthcare providers and insurers happened because the organizations were not aware of all of the requirements facing them, according to root-cause analyses performed by HHS contractor KPMG.

“You probably don't know what you don't know,” OCR Senior Adviser Linda Sanches told a crowd of healthcare lawyers and compliance officials Tuesday during the Health Care Compliance Association's annual Compliance Institute, held this year in National Harbor, Md.

Sanches said the findings show that many healthcare companies could benefit from re-reading the rules and regulations in the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health, or HITECH, Act that widen HIPAA privacy and data-security protections on patients' protected health information.

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The HITECH Act required HHS to audit how well the 3 million or so “covered entities” in the U.S. follow the rules on safeguarding patient data and reporting breaches that do occur. The office selected 61 healthcare providers, 47 health plans and seven healthcare data “clearinghouses” for inspection, and concluded those reviews in December.

On Tuesday, Sanches announced in her presentation (PDF) that 13 entities, including only two healthcare providers, passed the “performance audits” without any negative findings.

Of the organizations with documented problems, data-security issues accounted for 60% of all the findings and observations, while 30% pertained to data privacy and 10% related to data-breach notifications.

“Security was overwhelmingly an area of concern,” Sanches said, noting that 47 of the providers had not done a complete and accurate risk assessment for potential data problems.

Not only did many providers report being unaware of all the data security and privacy rules they're supposed to follow, but many seemed not to have policies in place to comply with the rules. She said it seemed clear that some of the policies were written by consultants after the organizations were targeted for audits. “There were intentional misrepresentations. We were not happy about that,” she said.

Sanches said that entities with documented problems were not punished, because the audits were done by contractor KPMG, but that the negative findings have since been forwarded to investigators in HHS' civil rights office for future consideration.

The HITECH Act requires the office to audit organizations that directly handle protected patient health information—which are known as “covered entities”—as well as organizations' subcontractors and business associates. Sanches said rules on auditing “business associates” are still under development and targets of those reviews will be determined after September.

Follow Joe Carlson on Twitter: @MHJCarlson


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