What is a HIPAA Violation?

A HIPAA violation is a breach of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act’s regulations, occurring when protected health information (PHI) is disclosed without proper authorization or necessary safeguards, either unintentionally or deliberately, leading to unauthorized access, use, or distribution of sensitive patient data.

Impact of HIPAA Violations on Organizations

HIPAA violations can negatively affect healthcare organizations by leading to fines that can reach millions of dollars, depending on the extent and nature of the breach. These penalties can strain financial resources and divert funds from patient care or development projects. Organizations may also face class action lawsuits and increased insurance premiums. Violations can trigger audits and closer scrutiny by regulators, which can be costly and time-consuming. HIPAA violations damage the organization’s reputation, resulting in a loss of patient trust and potentially a decrease in patient numbers. Data breaches can disrupt operations and require investment to improve data security measures.

Impact of HIPAA Violations on Healthcare Industry Workers

Violations of HIPAA can have serious implications for people working in the healthcare sector. Consequences range from fines and job termination to criminal charges, depending on the severity of the breach. Even unintentional violations can result in mandatory retraining, negative impact on professional reputation, and loss of trust from patients and colleagues. Repeated or serious violations may lead to revocation of medical licenses and exclusion from Medicare and Medicaid programs, effectively ending a healthcare provider’s ability to practice.

Common HIPAA Violations

Common HIPAA violations often include unauthorized access to or disclosure of protected health information, poor security measures leading to data breaches, non-compliance with the minimum necessary standard, failure to provide patients with access to their medical records, and delayed or neglected breach notifications.

Common HIPAA ViolationsDescription
Unauthorized Access/DisclosureThis involves accessing or sharing patient information without consent or a valid reason, which can occur through staff gossip, loss of paperwork, or misdirected emails.
Failure to Encrypt PHIPHI that is not encrypted is vulnerable to unauthorized access, especially if electronic devices are lost, stolen, or hacked.
Lack of TrainingHIPAA compliance is undermined when healthcare workers are not properly educated on how to handle PHI, leading to accidental breaches or non-compliance.
Loss or Theft of DevicesPortable electronic devices containing PHI are particularly at risk of causing a breach if lost or stolen, due to the ease of access to data.
Improper Disposal of PHIPHI must be rendered unreadable before disposal; failure to do so, like tossing intact documents in the trash, can result in a violation.
Lack of Patient Access to RecordsPatients have the right to access their health information, and providers must facilitate this in a timely manner; barriers to access are a violation.
Failure to Conduct Risk AssessmentsAn important component of HIPAA compliance is conducting regular assessments to identify and address vulnerabilities in the protection of PHI.
Lack of Business Associate Agreements (BAAs)Contracts must be in place with all third parties handling PHI, ensuring they follow HIPAA regulations; lack of BAAs is a violation.
Hacking/IT IncidentsCyber-attacks like malware or ransomware that lead to the compromise of PHI are becoming increasingly common and are serious HIPAA violations.
Failure to Maintain RecordsHIPAA requires that certain records be maintained for six years; failing to do so can lead to fines and difficulties in proving compliance.
Misuse of Social MediaHealthcare employees sharing patient information or images on social media without consent is a violation that can lead to immediate dismissal and fines.
Failure to Update Business Associate AgreementsBAAs must be regularly reviewed and updated to remain compliant with evolving HIPAA regulations and practices.
Delayed Breach NotificationsNotifications of any breach involving PHI must be made without unreasonable delay, and failure to do so is a violation.
Failure to Securely Transmit PHITransmitting PHI over unsecured channels, such as non-encrypted email or messaging services, can lead to interception and is a violation.
Excessive Disclosure of PHIDisclosing more PHI than is necessary for a particular task can result in a violation, even if done with no malicious intent.

Examples of HIPAA Violations by Employers

HIPAA violations by employers often involve improper handling of employees’ protected health information, such as unauthorized disclosure to third parties, inadequate security measures leading to breaches, lack of necessary employee training on privacy policies, and failure to adhere to authorization and notification protocols as mandated by HIPAA regulations.

Type of ViolationExtended Description
Unlawful DisclosureRevealing an employee’s health information without their consent, which could be sharing with unauthorized staff, or external entities, potentially leading to discrimination or breach of trust.
Inadequate SafeguardsFailing to protect health information through physical, administrative, and technical safeguards, thus risking accidental disclosure or vulnerability to theft or hacking.
Unauthorized AccessGranting access to PHI to employees who do not require it for their job functions, which may lead to misuse or unintended disclosure of sensitive information.
Lack of TrainingNeglecting to provide comprehensive HIPAA compliance training to employees, resulting in a lack of understanding and potential mishandling of PHI.
Authorization NoncomplianceDisclosing PHI without obtaining a legally compliant authorization from the employee, especially for purposes not related to healthcare operations or benefits administration.
Improper Record KeepingNot keeping health records secure and separate from other employment records, which could result in unauthorized access or loss of sensitive health information.
Separation of Plan RecordsEmployers with self-funded health plans failing to keep those health plan records separate from regular employment records, leading to potential unauthorized internal access.
Improper DisposalDisposing of documents containing PHI in an insecure manner, such as trashing without shredding, risking exposure of sensitive health information to unauthorized persons.
Neglecting Privacy NoticesFailing to provide employees with a Notice of Privacy Practices for employer-sponsored health plans, which is crucial for informing them of their privacy rights.
Breach Notification FailureNot promptly notifying the necessary parties, including affected individuals and relevant authorities, when a breach of unsecured PHI has occurred.


Examples of Unintentional HIPAA Violations

Unintentional HIPAA violations are breaches of the HIPAA that occur without malice or intent to violate the regulations, typically due to oversight, misunderstanding, or lack of awareness regarding the privacy and security requirements for protected health information (PHI).

Unintentional HIPAA ViolationExtended Description
Misdirected CommunicationsSending emails or faxes containing PHI to the wrong recipient due to input errors or autofill mistakes in electronic systems.
Lost or Stolen DevicesLosing or suffering the theft of laptops, smartphones, or USB drives that contain unencrypted PHI, often due to leaving devices unattended.
Improper Disposal of PHIDisposing of PHI in regular trash bins or recycling without shredding or properly sanitizing the media, leaving information vulnerable to retrieval.
Unauthorized OverhearingDiscussing patient information in public areas such as elevators or waiting rooms where it can be overheard by unauthorized individuals.
Lack of Access ControlsFailing to implement sufficient user authentication and authorization processes, allowing individuals without proper permissions to access PHI.
Sharing PHI with Wrong PartiesAccidentally sharing PHI with unauthorized third parties, such as sending patient information to the wrong family member or healthcare provider.
Failure to Encrypt DataNot using encryption for PHI stored on electronic devices or transmitted over the internet, which could lead to data breaches if intercepted.
Accidental PHI Exposure OnlineInadvertently posting or exposing PHI on public websites, social media, or through unsecured online platforms due to mishandling of data.
Not Logging Off Secure SystemsLeaving computers or other devices logged into secure systems that contain PHI, which can then be accessed by unauthorized personnel.
Untrained StaffStaff members making mistakes that lead to violations because they are not properly trained or familiar with HIPAA compliance requirements.

Penalties for HIPAA Violations

Penalties for HIPAA violations refer to the sanctions or fines imposed on entities that fail to comply with HIPAA regulations, which can include financial penalties that range from minimum amounts for unintentional violations to maximum caps per year for identical provisions, as well as criminal charges leading to imprisonment in cases of deliberate neglect or wrongful disclosure of PHI.

Civil penalties for HIPAA violations are monetary fines imposed by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and are based on the level of negligence, ranging from $100 to $50,000 per violation, with a maximum of $1.5 million per year for each violation of an identical provision, for actions that violate patient privacy rules without criminal intent.

Criminal penalties for HIPAA violations apply when there is knowing and willful misuse or disclosure of Protected Health Information (PHI), which can result in fines up to $250,000 and imprisonment for up to ten years, depending on the severity of the breach and the intent behind the violation.

Penalty TierCulpabilityMinimum Penalty per Violation – Inflation AdjustedMax Penalty per Violation – Inflation AdjustedMaximum Penalty Per Year (cap) – Inflation Adjusted
Tier 1Lack of Knowledge$137$68,928$2,067,813
Tier 2Reasonable Cause$1,379$68,928$2,067,813
Tier 3Willful Neglect$13,785$68,928$2,067,813
Tier 4Willful Neglect (not corrected within 30 days)$68,928$2,067,813$2,067,813

Table: 2023 HIPAA Penalty Structure

Recent HIPAA Violations Fines

2023Optum Medical Care of New Jersey$160,000SettlementFailure to provide patients with timely access to their medical records.
2023Lafourche Medical Group$480,000SettlementNo HIPAA risk analysis prior to a security breach and no regular reviews of system activity prior to the breach.
2023St. Joseph’s Medical Center$80,000SettlementReporter permitted access to patients and their clinical information without first obtaining authorizations from the patients.
2023Doctors’ Management Services$100,000SettlementFailure to comply with the HIPAA Security Rule, and an impermissible disclosure of the PHI of 206,695 individuals
2023L.A. Care Health Plan$1,300,000SettlementFailure to comply with the HIPAA Security Rule, impermissible disclosure of the ePHI of 1,498 individuals.
2023UnitedHealthcare$80,000SettlementHIPAA Right of Access Failure
2023iHealth Solutions, dba Advantum Health$75,000SettlementTheft of ePHI, resulting in impermissible disclosure of the ePHI of 267 individuals.
2023Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital$240,000SettlementSnooping on the medical records of 419 patients.
2023Manasa Health Center, LLC$30,000SettlementImpermissible disclosure of the PHI of 4 individuals in response to negative Google Reviews. Failure to implement HIPAA Privacy and Breach Notification Rule policies and procedures
2023MedEvolve Inc.$350,000SettlementImpermissible disclosure of the PHI of 230,572 individuals.
2023David Mente, MA, LPC$15,000SettlementHIPAA Right of Access failure
2023Banner Health$1,250,000SettlementRisk analysis, reviews of system activity, verification of identity for access to PHI, lack of technical safeguards
2023Life Hope Labs, LLC$16,500SettlementHIPAA Right of Access failure

Table: Recent HIPAA Fines

How to prevent HIPAA violations

Preventing HIPAA violations starts with full training programs, as educating healthcare employees about the proper handling of protected health information is one of the most effective steps to mitigate risks. Training should be an ongoing process with annual updates to ensure compliance with the latest regulations. Beyond training, healthcare organizations should implement strong data security measures, such as encryption, secure access controls, and regular security risk assessments to identify and address vulnerabilities. Clear policies and procedures must be established and communicated to all staff, detailing how PHI should be accessed, shared, and stored. Conducting internal audits helps monitor adherence to these policies. Organizations must create a culture of compliance where employees feel comfortable reporting potential violations without fear of retribution. This multi-layered approach to preventing HIPAA violations, combining education, policy, and proactive risk management, is necessary for minimizing HIPAA violations.