by Marcia Savage
The health care industry was buzzing with the news: For the first time ever, a hospital was being audited for compliance with HIPAA security requirements. The audit of Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general in 2007 was surprising for hospitals, health insurers and others in an industry accustomed to a lack of enforcement of federal privacy and security requirements.

A year later, HHS took another unusual step, meting out a $100,000 fine to Seattle-based Providence Health & Services for HIPAA security and privacy violations. The organization had lost backup tapes, optical disks and laptops containing unencrypted protected health information on more than 360,000 patients.

But those enforcement actions could be small potatoes compared to what’s ahead. The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed into law last year, earmarks about $19 billion in incentives to encourage adoption of electronic health record technology but also expands on HIPAA’s security and privacy requirements. In addition to instituting new breach notification rules and extending the rules to health care business associates, HITECH implements a new tiered system that increases civil monetary penalties for noncompliance and also allows state attorney generals to file civil actions for HIPAA violations.

“HITECH is perceived as the enforcement arm of HIPAA,” says Barry Runyon, research vice president covering health care providers at Gartner. “The stakes are higher and more people can enforce it.

“What it’s done has kind of jump started HIPAA. Health care delivery organizations’ programs languished for a while,” he adds. “When there’s no enforcement, people tend to get complacent. HITECH is making them revisit their security plans and look at their controls — essentially what they should have been doing.”

Let’s take a look at the ramifications of the HITECH Act on security and privacy in the health care industry and its impact so far.

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