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Knowledge of Illegality Not Required For Criminal Charges Under HIPAA

On May 10, 2012 the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth District decided that criminal charges under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) do not require that an individual have knowledge that their actions are illegal. The case, United States of America v. Zhou, is the first such case to establish that the knowledge requirements of a criminal HIPAA violation apply only to the fact that the information accessed was protected health information, and not that obtaining the information was in violation of HIPAA.

Under the statute, HIPAA provides that a criminal penalty applies to a person who knowingly and in violation of the statute, uses, obtains, or discloses protected health information. Zhou argued that the statute requires knowledge that the information obtained was protected health information, as well as knowledge that obtaining it was illegal. The court rejected the argument and determined that the language of HIPAA is plain. The court found that the word “and” unambiguously indicates that there are two elements of a violation, and that knowingly applies only to obtaining the protected health information, and not to the fact that obtaining the protected health information was illegal.

The statute at issue in the decision is 42 U.S.C ยง1320d-6a, which reads as follows:

(a) Offense A person who knowingly and in violation of this part–

(1) uses or causes to be used a unique health identifier;

(2) obtains individually identifiable health information relating to an individual; or

(3) discloses individually identifiable health information to another person,
shall be punished as provided in subsection (b) of this section. For purposes of the previous sentence, a person (including an employee or other individual) shall be considered to have obtained or disclosed individually identifiable health information in violation of this part if the information is maintained by a covered entity (as defined in the HIPAA privacy regulation described in section 1320d-9 (b)(3) of this title) and the individual obtained or disclosed such information without authorization.

Penalties for violations of the statute can include fines of up to $250,000, imprisonment for up to 10 years, or both.

The decision in this case highlights the importance of having a strong HIPAA compliance plan in place in every health organization. If you have questions about HIPPA compliance, or need help creating and implementing a compliance plan, please contact an experienced healthcare attorney at Wachler & Associates, at 248-544-0888.