Healthcare providers and other covered entities are not required by HIPAA regulations to have “bulletproof” protections for safeguarding patient information stored in electronic form, according to a January 14, 2021 decision of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In University of Texas M.D. Anderson v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the 5th Circuit vacated a $4.3 million civil monetary penalty imposed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) against the University of Texas’ M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
The case arises from three separate incidents where M.D. Anderson employees lost laptops and USB thumb drives that contained unencrypted protected health information (PHI) for more than 34,000 patients. M.D. Anderson reported the breach incidents to HHS’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR), the office tasked with enforcing HIPAA. As a result of the reported breaches, OCR ordered M.D. Anderson to pay $4.3 million in civil monetary penalties (CMPs). M.D. Anderson appealed the decision to an HHS administrative law judge and to the HHS Departmental Appeals Board (DAB), both of which upheld OCR’s penalties. M.D. Anderson argued that the HIPAA regulations do not require encryption, that it complied with the regulations and employed other effective measures to safeguard electronic protected health information (ePHI), that the three incidents were the fault of staff who violated M.D. Anderson’s policies, and that the proposed CMPs were excessive.