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Responding to Negative Online Comments. Is it worth it?

On June 5, 2023, HHS reached a settlement agreement with a New Jersey psychiatry practice that included, amongst other requirements, a fine of $30,000 to settle a complaint about an impermissible disclosure of protected health information when the psychiatry practiced disclosed the patient’s protected health information in a response to a negative online review. The following is taken from the HHS news release.

“The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announces a settlement with Manasa Health Center, LLC, a health care provider in New Jersey that provides adult and child psychiatric services. The settlement resolves a complaint received by OCR in April 2020, alleging that Manasa Health Center impermissibly disclosed the protected health information of a patient when the entity posted a response to the patient’s negative online review. Following an OCR investigation, potential violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule include impermissible disclosures of patient protected health information in response to negative online reviews, and failure to implement policies and procedures with respect to protected health information. Manasa Health Center paid $30,000 to OCR and agreed to implement a corrective action plan to resolve these potential violations.  

“OCR continues to receive complaints about health care providers disclosing their patients’ protected health information on social media or on the internet in response to negative reviews. Simply put, this is not allowed,” said OCR Director Melanie Fontes Rainer. “The HIPAA Privacy Rule expressly protects patients from this type of activity, which is a clear violation of both patient trust and the law. OCR will investigate and take action when we learn of such impermissible disclosures, no matter how large or small the organization.”

OCR opened an investigation in response to a complaint by a patient alleging that Manasa Health Center posted a response to the patient’s negative online review that included specific information regarding the individual’s diagnosis and treatment of their mental health condition. In addition to the patient who filed the complaint, OCR’s investigation found that Manasa Health Center impermissibly disclosed the protected health information of three other patients in response to their negative online reviews. OCR’s investigation also found that Manasa Health Center failed to implement HIPAA Privacy policies and procedures.

In addition to the monetary settlement, Manasa Health Center will undertake a corrective action plan that will be monitored for two years by OCR to ensure compliance with the HIPAA Privacy Rule. The corrective action plan includes the following steps:

  • Develop, maintain, and revise its written policies and procedures to comply with the HIPAA Privacy Rule,
  • Train all members of Manasa Health Center’s workforce, including owners and managers, on the organization’s policies and procedures to comply with the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules,
  • Within 30 calendar days of the agreement, Manasa Health Center shall issue breach notices to all individuals, or their personal representatives, whose protected health information is disclosed on any internet platform without a valid authorization, and
  • Within 30 calendar days of the agreement, Manasa Health Center shall submit a breach report to HHS concerning individuals whose protected health information is disclosed on any internet platform without a valid authorization.

The resolution agreement and corrective action plan may be found at: https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/compliance-enforcement/agreements/manasa-ra-cap/index.html

2 Comments

  1. Acknowledging the customer’s complaint and apologizing can help defuse a potentially volatile situation. Even if the feedback seems unfair or incorrect, remember that the customer’s perception is their reality.

  2. Thank you for your comment Leona. Responding to a client or patient complaint publicly reveals they were at your center, which is a HIPAA violation. Perhaps reaching out to the individual directly to rectify the matter is a better and safer solution. If your center must respond publicly, I recommend using a HIPAA compliant response that does not reveal that the commenter received services at your center, thus protecting your client.

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