Feds Promise to Trim Backlog of Health Care Investigations

Americans filed more than 51,000 complaints against health agencies last year.

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal officials said Monday they're working to cut down on a growing backlog of complaints lodged against health care providers, insurers or government agencies by patients who claim their civil rights or privacy have been violated.

Americans filed more than 51,000 complaints against health agencies last year, a number that has grown tremendously — 69% — over the last five years, the federal Health and Human Services agency announced. Some complaints can take years to investigate.

About two-thirds of the cases involve potential violations of health information privacy and security, a problem that has worsened in recent years because of data breaches and cybersecurity hacks, the agency said. In 2021, more than 700 large breaches of health information were reported. Health insurer Anthem, for example, was forced to pay the government a record $16 million fine in 2018 after a data breach affecting about 79 million people — including names, birthdates, Social Security numbers and medical IDs.

Health care workers and patients can file federal complaints against providers, insurers, and government agencies when they think patients are being discriminated against or protected health information has been shared, a violation of a longstanding law known as HIPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. HHS' Office of Civil Rights is responsible for investigating those complaints.

The office will reorganize in an effort to more quickly investigate such complaints, the agency said Monday.

The office will keep a dedicated division to investigate HIPAA complaints, with a focus on the growing segment of cybersecurity breaches. It will also have three new different divisions with staff that focus on each of the following: policy, strategic planning, and enforcement.

"This structure will enable OCR staff to leverage its deep expertise and skills to ensure that we are protecting individuals under the range of federal laws that we are tasked with enforcing," HHS Office of Civil Rights Director Melanie Fontes Rainer said in a statement.

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