During her campaign to become Republican state senator for Virginia in 2015, Henrico County physician Siobhan Dunnavant, M.D., impermissably used patients’ contact information – classed as protected health information under HIPAA Rules – to garner donations from patients to help fund her campaign.
Contact information – names and addresses – was given to her campaign team and was used to communicate with patients. The same data was also made available to a direct mail company: A violation of the HIPAA Privacy Rule. At least two complaints were filed by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights about the privacy violation in 2016.
An OCR regional office contacted the candidate after being alerted to the privacy violation and advised her that her actions constituted an impermissible use and disclosure of PHI – violations of the HIPAA Privacy Rule. Such violations normally result in financial penalties being issued.
Dunnavant, who was later successfully elected to the state senate, could have issued of up to $250,000 for the HIPAA violation and could also have been imprisoned for up to 10 years. However, OCR has chosen not to take further legal action.
It was ruled that no financial penalty was appropriate as Dunnavant took immediate action to lessen damage. The review into the HIPAA violations has now been closed.
HIPAA breaches are not always punishable with civil financial penalties and do not always require resolution agreements. OCR normally resolves HIPAA violations through voluntary compliance and by issuing technical guidance. Civil monetary penalties and resolution agreements are usually reserved for the most serious violations of HIPAA Rules.
While Dunnavant’s use of patient contact data to garner contributions did breach HIPAA Rules, the privacy violation was comparatively minor and no patients came to harm. Dunnavan felt her actions were permitted under HIPAA Rules as she had obtained a business associate agreement prior to disclosing the data.
Senator Dunnavant commented to the Richmond-Times Dispatch that the mailings were intended to maker her patients aware of her political activity and reassure them that it would not have an impact on the provision of medical services. Dunnavant said she sought counsel from her lawyers and medical practice board before sending the correspondence no HIPAA issues were raised. She also stated she regretted adding an appeal for political support to the correspondence.