Industry Voices—Think you're HIPAA-compliant? Here are 3 tips to be sure

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 70% of organizations are not "HIPAA compliant."  

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA, mandates industry-wide standards for healthcare information and electronic billing and requires protection as well as the confidential handling of protected health information.

According to HIPAA rules, any company that deals with protected information must have a physical network and process security measures that are followed to ensure compliance. 

It's safe to say that many organizations are still perplexed about HIPAA audits, enforcement and compliance. As a result, the number of organizations that fail to meet compliance each year remains the majority. To begin understanding compliance, healthcare organizations would be wise to consider three key recommendations.

  1. Analyze the past, to avoid making the same mistake twice

It is important for hospitals and healthcare facilities to look at some of the common mistakes that are repeatedly noted in HIPAA security reviews. HIPAA states that out of all the reviews completed, a number of frequent compliance violations and issues are found each year. This includes impermissible uses and disclosures of protected health information, lack of safeguards to protect health information, lack of patient access to their personal health information, lack of administrative safeguards on electronic protected health information, and use or disclosure of more than the minimum protected health information.

Protecting valuable data by analyzing past mistakes is an important step in the compliance process.

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  1. Perform a risk assessment and gap analysis

One preventative measure in assessing an organization’s compliance with HIPAA is a risk assessment and a gap analysis. The confusion and lack of understanding around the two examinations has been common among healthcare professionals in the marketplace for some time. Not understanding the differences can be detrimental to an organization and puts them at a significantly higher risk. According to HHS and OCR guidelines, all healthcare organizations must specifically conduct a risk assessment to be deemed within HIPAA compliance. 

A HIPAA gap analysis can be used to measure the organization's information security standing against HIPAA, which is part of HHS audit protocol. Comparing the organization’s current practices to the HHS OCR audit protocol will identify the strengths and weaknesses of the security program.

From there, the organization can determine whether they have reasonable and appropriate administrative, physical and technical safeguards in place to protect patient health. Performance of the gap analysis also allows the organization to develop an audit response toolkit which includes the data and documentation that would be able to support compliance with the HIPAA regulations to regulatory agencies.

The risk assessment is a required control as defined in the audit protocol. Without conducting a thorough and comprehensive risk assessment, a healthcare organization cannot identify applicable threats and vulnerabilities that allow them to take corrective action. Completing a thorough risk assessment provides insight into the organization's security position and allows for change before an audit takes place. Risk assessment should also be updated at least annually to ensure they reflect current operational practices.

To begin, an organization should document any ePHI (Electronic Personal Health Information) transmitting or processing services. This includes any business associates or employees that receive and use the ePHI. It’s important to evaluate all aspects of the organization’s operation to verify all uses and disclosures of ePHI are identified. Don’t assume that your IT shop is aware of all of your uses and disclosures; inquire of all of the operational areas of your organization.   

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The Risk Assessment should evaluate the security, use, and disclosure of PHI against  HIPAA’s privacy, security and breach notification implementation specifications. 

  1. Develop an action plan and a response toolkit

For many healthcare organizations, the question is not if they will receive a HIPAA audit or an OCR investigation but when. The OCR, which is responsible for completing HIPAA audits, will contact the organization. 

The OCR will further ask for a variety of documents and data. Once these documents and data are reviewed, the OCR will send the organization a preliminary copy of its findings. This preliminary report gives healthcare organizations the opportunity to respond to the OCR and have their responses included in the final report.

From the final report, the OCR will determine whether an organization was in compliance with HIPPA and, if not, where an organization was lacking. If an organization was not in total compliance, the OCR will provide corrective action and technical assistance the organization can use to work toward compliance. 

Developing an action plan and evaluating the organization’s information security against the OCR audit protocol to develop an audit response toolkit will leave organizations with practical actions that serve their best interest, eliminate mistakes, and mitigate risk.

Carol Amick is the manager of healthcare services at CompliancePoint.