HHS: We’ll do more to protect your health information’s privacy, speed health care investigations
Among other steps, the agency’s Office of Civil Rights is being reorganized to better investigate complaints of violations of HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
WASHINGTON — Federal officials say they’re working to cut down on a growing backlog of complaints lodged against health care providers, insurers and government agencies by patients who claim their civil rights or privacy have been violated.
Americans filed more than 51,000 complaints last year against health agencies, a number that has grown tremendously — 69% — over the past five years, according to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, with some complaints taking years to investigate.
About two-thirds of the cases involve potential violations of health privacy and security, a problem that has worsened in recent years because of data breaches and cybersecurity hacks, the agency said. In 2021, more than 700 large breaches of health information were reported.
Health insurer Anthem, for example, was forced to pay the government a record $16 million fine in 2018 after a data breach affecting about 79 million people that included names, birthdates, Social Security numbers and medical IDs.
Health workers and patients can file federal complaints against providers, insurers and government agencies when they think patients are being discriminated against or protected health information has been shared, a violation of a longstanding law known as HIPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. HHS’s Office of Civil Rights is responsible for investigating those complaints.
That office will now be reorganized to more quickly investigate such complaints, with a division dedicated to investigating HIPAA complaints, focusing on the growing number of cybersecurity breaches.
It also will have three new divisions to focus on policy, strategic planning and enforcement to help “ensure that we are protecting individuals under the range of federal laws that we are tasked with enforcing,” said Melanie Fontes Rainer, director of HHS’s Office of Civil Rights.