On May 10, 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) announced a $2.4 million civil monetary penalty against Memorial Hermann Health System (“MHHS”) for alleged violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (“HIPAA”) Privacy Rule. 

The penalty followed an OCR compliance review of MHHS based on multiple media reports suggesting that MHHS had disclosed a patient’s protected health information (“PHI”) without authorization. OCR’s review focused on an incident that occurred when a MHHS patient allegedly presented fraudulent identification and was subsequently arrested. MHHS senior management approved the publishing of a press release about the incident that contained the patient’s name, an impermissible disclosure of PHI in violation of the Privacy Rule. OCR’s review further determined that MHHS failed to timely document the sanctions it issued to its personnel for disclosing the patient’s PHI. Under the terms of OCR’s resolution agreement, MHHS must update its policies and procedures on safeguarding PHI from impermissible uses and disclosures, as well as train its workforce on compliance.

“Senior management should have known that disclosing a patient’s name on the title of a press release was a clear HIPAA Privacy violation that would induce a swift OCR response,” said OCR Director Roger Severino. “This case reminds us that organizations can readily cooperate with law enforcement without violating HIPAA, but that they must nevertheless continue to protect patient privacy when making statements to the public and elsewhere.” This settlement, the eighth announced this year, signals OCR’s increased enforcement of the Privacy Rule.