HHS Announces HIPAA Audits

As a part of its continued efforts to assess compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy, Security and Breach Notification Rules, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has begun its next phase of audits of covered entities and their business associates.

Audits are an important compliance tool for OCR that supplement OCR’s other enforcement tools, such as complaint investigations and compliance reviews. These tools enable OCR to identify best practices and proactively uncover and address risks and vulnerabilities to protected health information (PHI).

In its 2016 Phase 2 HIPAA Audit Program, OCR will  review the policies and procedures adopted and employed by covered entities (which include employer-sponsored health plans) and their business associates to meet selected standards and implementation specifications of the Privacy, Security and Breach Notification Rules. These audits will primarily be desk audits, although some on-site audits will be conducted.

The 2016 audit process begins with verification of an entity’s address and contact information. An email is being sent to covered entities and business associates requesting that contact information be provided to OCR in a timely manner. OCR will then transmit a pre-audit questionnaire to gather data about the size, type and operations of potential auditees; this data will be used with other information to create potential audit subject pools.

If an entity does not respond to OCR’s request to verify its contact information or pre-audit questionnaire, OCR will use publically available information about the entity to create its audit subject pool. Therefore, an entity that does not respond to OCR may still be selected for an audit or subject to a compliance review. Communications from OCR will be sent via email and may be incorrectly classified as spam. If your entity’s spam filtering and virus protection are automatically enabled, HHS expects entities to check their junk or spam email folder for emails from OCR.

OCR says that the audit program is developing on pace and that it is committed to transparency about the process. OCR says it will post updated audit protocols on its website closer to conducting the 2016 audits. The audit protocol will be updated to reflect the HIPAA Omnibus Rulemaking and can be used as a tool by organizations to conduct their own internal self-audits as part of their HIPAA compliance activities.

OCR says the audits are intended to enhance industry awareness of compliance obligations and enable OCR to better target technical assistance regarding problems identified through the audits. Through the information gleaned from the audits, OCR says it will develop tools and guidance to assist the industry in compliance self-evaluation and in preventing breaches. OCR says it will evaluate the results and procedures used in the phase 2 audits to develop a permanent audit program.

HIPAA established important national standards for the privacy and security of PHI and the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH) established breach notification requirements to provide greater transparency for individuals whose information may be at risk. HITECH requires OCR to conduct periodic audits of covered entity and business associate compliance with the HIPAA Privacy, Security, and Breach Notification Rules.

In 2011 and 2012, OCR implemented a pilot audit program to assess the controls and processes implemented by 115 covered entities to comply with HIPAA’s requirements. OCR also conducted an extensive evaluation of the effectiveness of the pilot program. Drawing on that experience and the results of the evaluation, OCR is implementing phase two of the program, which will audit both covered entities and business associates. As part of this program, OCR is developing enhanced protocols (sets of instructions) to be used in the next round of audits and pursuing a new strategy to test the efficacy of desk audits in evaluating the compliance efforts of the HIPAA regulated industry.

In the coming months, OCR will notify the selected covered entities in writing through email about their selection for a desk audit. The OCR notification letter will introduce the audit team, explain the audit process and discuss OCR’s expectations in more detail. In addition, the letter will include initial requests for documentation. OCR expects covered entities that are the subject of an audit to submit requested information via OCR’s secure portal within 10 business days of the date on the information request. All documents are to be in digital form and submitted electronically via a secure online portal.

In order to be prepared for audits, employer-sponsored health plans should have HIPAA privacy and security policies and procedures in place, signed agreements with all business associates and documentation of training of workforce members who handle PHI, as well as a copy of the HIPAA notice of privacy practices and documentation of when and how it was distributed to plan participants.


John Garner

About John Garner

John Garner has over thirty five years of experience in employee benefits. He specializes in compliance, health care reform, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). He helps clients with life, health, and disability benefits, cost containment, flexible benefits, and claim consulting.

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