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Last week, the Connecticut Attorney General became the first state attorney general to enter into a settlement agreement for HIPAA violations, as a result of the new authority granted to attorneys general under the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH Act).

Two months after Congress mandated notification for the breach of unsecured protected health information (PHI), the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) defined what it means to be “unsecured.” As required by Section 13402 of the HITECH Act, H.R. 1, 111th Cong. (1st Sess. 2009) (which was part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009), the Secretary issued guidance and a request for comments on the technologies and methodologies rendering information unusable, unreadable or indecipherable. 74 Fed. Reg. 19006 (Apr. 27, 2009) (to be codified at 45 C.F.R. pts. 160, 164).

On July 15, 2008, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (“HHS”) entered into its first Resolution Agreement with a HIPAA-covered entity to settle alleged violations of the privacy and security regulations promulgated under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (“HIPAA”). Pursuant to the Resolution Agreement, a Seattle-based not-for-profit health system, Providence Health & Services and certain of its divisions (“Providence”), paid $100,000 to HHS and entered into a Corrective Action Plan with the government. HHS advised that Providence’s cooperation in the investigation helped it avoid a “civil monetary penalty.” Providence has been released from further civil fines to HHS arising out of the particular activities at issue in this matter, provided that Providence complies with the terms of the three-year Corrective Action Plan. The Resolution Agreement did not release Providence from any potential criminal liability.

Prior to this Resolution Agreement, HHS had not imposed any fines on any HIPAA-covered entities. In the more than five years that have passed since the compliance deadline for the HIPAA privacy regulations, HHS has received close to 40,000 complaints of violations, the majority of which were not eligible for enforcement. Of those where a violation was identified, HHS had previously resolved such cases by requiring changes in privacy practices and other corrective actions without entering into any formal settlement agreements or imposing any fines.