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HIPAA Breach Penalties: What Virtual Medical Assistants Need to Know

  • 30 Jan 2024
  • 4 min read

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  • Introduction
  • What does a penalty for a HIPAA violation look like?
  • What are some of the most common HIPAA violations (and how you can completely avoid them)
  • How PureDome simplifies HIPAA Compliance for VAs with Secure Remote Access solutions
  • FAQs


In virtual healthcare assistance, integrating technology and patient care is paramount, which underscores the importance of complying with HIPAA regulations. Remote staffing companies serve as vital conduits for supplying virtual medical assistants (VMAs) to hospitals and clinics across the world, making them responsible for maintaining the highest standards of patient data security. Understanding HIPAA breach penalties is a critical aspect of this responsibility since navigating the complex web of consequences tied to HIPAA breaches is not just a legal imperative but a crucial step in upholding patient trust and ensuring the longevity of their digital healthcare partnerships.

What does a penalty for a HIPAA violation look like?

Penalties for HIPAA violations are not always punitive, and the OCR will typically offer guidelines to covered entities and business associates for implementing corrective measures to improve compliance. Only when the violations are serious, i.e., have lasted for a long period of time, have impacted a large number of people, or involve particularly sensitive patient data, does the OCR levy either financial or criminal penalties on the organization.

There are 4 levels of culpability that are considered before issuing a HIPAA violation penalty, updated as of May 2022:

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Criminal Penalties for HIPAA Violations

Criminal penalties for HIPAA violations are divided into three separate tiers, with the term – and an accompanying fine – decided by a judge based on the facts of each individual case. As with OCR, a number of general factors are considered which will affect the penalty issued. If an individual has profited from the theft, access, or disclosure of PHI, it may be necessary for all money received to be refunded, in addition to the payment of a fine.

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The tiers of criminal penalties for HIPAA violations:

Tier 1:

Reasonable cause or no knowledge of violation – Up to 1 year in jail

Tier 2:

Obtaining PHI under false pretenses – Up to 5 years in jail

Tier 3:

Obtaining PHI for personal gain or with malicious intent – Up to 10 years in jail

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The most common HIPAA violations that people make (and how you can completely avoid them)

In most cases, organizations aren’t aware that they are committing HIPAA violations, which makes it challenging to prevent the penalties associated with HIPAA non-compliance. Many of these violations are unintentional and often result from deficiencies in data security practices or inadequate employee training. Conducting regular compliance audits can assist organizations in identifying these shortcomings in their procedures.

Here are the five most common practices that cause HIPAA violations for VMAs:

  1. Insufficient Data Security and Encryption: Inadequate data security measures can expose VMAs to potential breaches, and this vulnerability isn't limited to external hackers; it can also occur when the employee shares unsecured patient information via text, uses an unsecured device for charting remotely or leaves patient records open on their computer.
  2. Device Theft: Although it may not seem obvious, device theft poses a significant risk and is a common source of HIPAA violations. When unencrypted devices such as laptops and mobile phones are stolen, it can lead to the compromise of valuable PHI.,Quick solution - Onboarding your team of VMAs on a competent business VPN that uses end-to-end data encryption to ensure PHI is only accessible to authorized users. Topping this up with Firewalls and Antivirus Software can put valuable gatekeepers between sensitive PHI and bad actors.
  3. Improper Handling of PHI by VMAs: HIPAA violations can occur when VMAs disclose PHI to unauthorized individuals, discuss sensitive patient information in public settings, or leave files containing PHI exposed where unauthorized individuals can access them.
  4. Inadequate Employee Training: Many HIPAA violations happen because VMAs are unaware that they are mishandling PHI. Organizations must provide comprehensive training to educate teams about HIPAA regulations, rules, breach prevention, and the integration of HIPAA compliance into their daily responsibilities.,Quick solution - Mandate cybersecurity training so your team of VMAs has the information they need to avoid malware, phishing, ransomware, and more, all of which can lead to HIPAA penalties. Also aim to implement security features like zero trust architecture,multi-factor authentication (MFA), and automatic timeouts, to curb the huge risk that can come from mismanaged devices.
  5. Non-Compliant Partnership Agreements: Healthcare organizations establish numerous partnerships to facilitate data sharing with patients and other providers. These partnerships can potentially expose organizations to HIPAA violations, especially when partner companies are acquired by others, contracts are managed off-site, or partners lack proper training on handling PHI.,Quick solution - Regularly review your BAAs to ensure that any updates to HIPAA are reflected within and conduct regular HIPAA training across your team of VMAs so they know exactly what constitutes a violation.

How PureDome Simplifies HIPAA Compliance for VMAs with Secure Remote Access Solutions

PureDome's ZTNA solution, coupled with a powerful Business VPN, offers encrypted, low-latency connections and network segmentation to reduce the attack surface while providing comprehensive visibility for security and compliance. It simplifies secure third-party access and enhances authentication, resulting in a robust, cost-effective security solution for organizations, especially in the work-from-anywhere era.

  • Encryption: Uses robust AES 256-bit encryption, safeguarding every byte of data.
  • Dedicated Team IPs: Each team gets a unique IP, strengthening access protocols.
  • Device Posture Checks: For granular control over both users and their devices, going beyond user-centric controls for improved security.
  • IdP integrations: To define who in your team can access your gateway for authorized access to your network and resources.
  • Reliable Connectivity: Uninterrupted access to networks, regardless of location.

Bottom Line

When handling Protected Health Information (PHI) or Personally Identifiable Information (PII) remotely makes the core of your business, it’s natural to have most of your day revolve around ensuring secure remote access to your client’s network, databases, and assets.

Virtual Medical Assistants hold the same rank as onsite employees at a healthcare facility in the rules that apply to them when handling patient data. The key to staying HIPAA compliant is weaving industry best practices across how your team accesses and handles your covered entity’s data in their day-to-day so you consistently mitigate any concerns that your clients may have on how ePHI is handled throughout their partnership with you.


Frequently Asked Questions

What constitutes a HIPAA breach, and how is it defined?

A HIPAA breach is defined as the unauthorized acquisition, access, use, or disclosure of protected health information (PHI) that compromises its security or privacy. It is crucial for virtual medical assistants to understand the parameters that classify an incident as a breach.

What are the potential penalties for a HIPAA breach?

HIPAA breach penalties can range from financial repercussions to legal consequences. Fines are imposed based on the severity of the breach, with maximum penalties reaching substantial amounts. Understanding the scale of potential penalties is vital for CISOs in risk assessment and mitigation.

How are HIPAA breach penalties determined?

The determination of HIPAA breach penalties is influenced by various factors, including the nature and extent of the breach, the organization's compliance history, and whether the breach resulted from willful neglect. CISOs should be aware of these considerations to gauge the potential impact on their organizations.

Are virtual medical assistants directly accountable for HIPAA breaches?

Virtual medical assistants, as part of the healthcare ecosystem, share accountability for HIPAA breaches. While ultimate responsibility lies with the covered entity or business associate, understanding their role in securing patient information is paramount to avoid contributing to breaches and associated penalties.

What steps should be taken if a HIPAA breach occurs?

In the unfortunate event of a HIPAA breach, swift and strategic action is essential. CISOs should have a well-defined incident response plan in place, including notifying affected individuals, reporting to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and conducting thorough internal investigations to prevent future incidents.

Can insurance cover HIPAA breach penalties?

While cybersecurity insurance can provide some financial protection in the aftermath of a HIPAA breach, it's essential for CISOs to carefully review policy terms and ensure that their organization's security measures align with insurance requirements.

How often should remote staffing companies conduct HIPAA compliance audits?

Penalties vary widely depending on the regulation and severity of the violation. GDPR fines can be up to 4% of global revenue. HIPAA fines can be $50,000+ per violation. Non-compliance can also lead to lawsuits, damaged reputation, and loss of customer trust.