BCBS Puerto Rico Affiliate Hit with $3.5M HIPAA Fine

Dec. 1, 2015
Triple-S Management Corporation, a Puerto Rico-based insurance holding company affiliated with Blue Cross and Blue Shield, has agreed to complete a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliance corrective action program and pay a $3.5 million fine for HIPAA violations dating back to 2010.

Triple-S Management Corporation, a Puerto Rico-based insurance holding company affiliated with Blue Cross and Blue Shield, has agreed to complete a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliance corrective action program and pay a $3.5 million fine for HIPAA violations dating back to 2010.

Reports say that the fine is the second largest one paid to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) for a failure to protect patient information. It’s second only to when the New York and Presbyterian Hospital (NYP) and Columbia University (CU), which participate in a joint arrangement in which CU faculty members serve as attending physicians at NYP, paid out $4.8 million to OCR last year for failing to secure thousands of patients’ electronic protected health information (ePHI) held on their network, resulting in ePHI being accessible on Internet search engines.

On several occasions over the last few years, Triple-S let PHI, including names, address and health insurance claim numbers be leaked, and printed on the outside of pamphlets mailed to beneficiaries. The violations started in 2010, however, when two former Triple-S workforce members employed by a competitor improperly accessed restricted areas of Triple-S’s database. As a result, the ePHI accessed in the database included members’ names, contract numbers, home addresses, diagnostic codes and treatment codes, according to the resolution agreement.

After receiving multiple breach notifications from Triple-S involving unsecured protected health information, OCR initiated investigations to ascertain the entities’ compliance with HIPAA rules. OCR’s investigations indicated widespread non-compliance throughout the various subsidiaries of Triple-S, including:

  • Failure to implement appropriate administrative, physical, and technical safeguards to protect the privacy of its beneficiaries’ PHI
  • Impermissible disclosure of its beneficiaries’ PHI to an outside vendor with which it did not have an appropriate business associate agreement
  • Use or disclosure of more PHI than was necessary to carry out mailings
  • Failure to conduct an accurate and thorough risk analysis that incorporates all IT equipment, applications, and data systems utilizing ePHI
  • Failure to implement security measures sufficient to reduce the risks and vulnerabilities to its ePHI to a reasonable and appropriate level

“OCR remains committed to strong enforcement of the HIPAA rules,” OCR Director Jocelyn Samuels, said in a press release statement. “This case sends an important message for HIPAA covered entities not only about compliance with the requirements of the security rule, including risk analysis, but compliance with the requirements of the privacy rule, including those addressing business associate agreements and the minimum necessary use of protected health information.”

The settlement requires Triple-S to establish a comprehensive compliance program designed to protect the security, confidentiality, and integrity of the personal information it collects from its beneficiaries. Triple-S, with the help of OCR through its technical assistance, had already begun to take extensive corrective action, HHS said. 

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