Who enforces HIPAA?

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) forms a vital framework within the United States healthcare system. This cornerstone, set in stone back in 1996, has been tirelessly working behind the scenes to enhance our healthcare system's efficiency and effectiveness.

Now, whether you're a healthcare provider, a patient, or just someone interacting with the healthcare system, getting your head around these rules - and especially who enforces them - is a must!

In this blog, we’ll unravel the often misunderstood realm of HIPAA enforcement and the consequences of accidentally and willingly violating it.

Who Enforces Federal HIPAA Law?

Picture a dedicated superhero tirelessly working behind the scenes to ensure our healthcare system remains a safe and private space for all. Meet the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) – the formidable federal agency that stands at the forefront of HIPAA enforcement. Operating under the umbrella of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the OCR is the guardian of healthcare privacy, ever-vigilant in upholding the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules.

As one of the unsung heroes of healthcare, the OCR swoops in to protect entities such as healthcare providers, health plans, and healthcare clearinghouses. It makes sure that these institutions keep those intrinsic HIPAA principles close to their hearts. It's not just about meeting a national standard. Rather, it's about setting the stage for a healthcare environment where transparency, privacy, and security reign.

HIPAA, at its core, represents the federal baseline for health information privacy. Like a foundation upon which the healthcare sector is constructed, HIPAA weaves the fabric of privacy into our healthcare system.

And you can always depend on the OCR to spot when something doesn't quite fit – be it a loose thread, a gap, or a breach in the privacy wall. This dedicated agency plays the essential role of enforcer, mentor, and protector, making sure that the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules are never compromised.

How Does the OCR Enforce Federal HIPAA Law?

One of the ways that the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) maintains the HIPAA standard is through the investigation of complaints it receives. This function is much like a detective's role, where the OCR looks into allegations of HIPAA violations, meticulously sifting through clues and following leads to get to the bottom of privacy and security grievances.

In addition to its investigatory duties, the OCR also oversees compliance with HIPAA regulations via audits. In essence, it serves as an inspector, monitoring entities' compliance efforts and making sure they're keeping up with needed protections for personal health information.

Finally, the OCR puts a massive amount of effort into education and outreach. Think of it as a mentor or a coach, guiding healthcare entities toward better compliance and helping them understand the ins and outs of HIPAA requirements.

The Role of State Authorities in Healthcare Privacy

Imagine the realm of healthcare privacy as a symphony. The foundation, HIPAA, is akin to the repetitive bass line that continuously echoes, providing the basic rhythm. This is where the federal government has its say, laying down the essential beat of healthcare privacy through its agent, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

However, this symphony is not a solo act. State governments and local regulators join in, bringing their own unique melodies to the composition. They have the authority to enhance the federal provisions, adding in their state-specific notes to provide even greater healthcare privacy protections for their constituents.

In such instances, where states come up with more stringent healthcare privacy laws than what HIPAA prescribes, it becomes a riveting crescendo in this symphony of privacy. The state law takes the lead, heading towards the climax of the score.

But it’s important to remember that HIPAA sets the minimum standard, the essential rhythm we always come back to.

Despite the state's ability to up the tempo on healthcare privacy, the OCR remains the steadfast conductor. This federal maestro coordinates all the different parts of the orchestra, bringing everything together in a harmonious blend.

Sure, some melodies may be more complex, but it’s the conductor's job to maintain overall harmony, ensuring the integrity of healthcare privacy in all its sonorous complexity.

How Is the State Attorneys General Involved?

The involvement of State Attorneys General (AGs) in HIPAA enforcement is an element that significantly bolsters the strictness and reach of these regulations.

The Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights is the primary enforcer of HIPAA compliance. However, as per the HITECH (Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health) Act, State AGs are also allowed to enforce compliance with the Rules of HIPAA.

The HITECH Act grants State Attorneys General the power to take legal action to obtain damages on behalf of state residents or to prevent further violations of the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules. This enhanced enforcement authority, courtesy of section 13410 (e) of the HITECH Act, necessitates significant coordination between the OCR and State Attorneys General.

According to the HITECH Act's Section 1177, the Department of Justice has the main enforcement authority, while State Attorneys General and the Federal Trade Commission have also been authorized to enforce HIPAA.

State attorneys' potential to enforce HIPAA rules adds a new layer of accountability and protection for patients, amplifying the central regulations' reach and increasing their potency.

Therefore, the role of State Attorneys General is an integral aspect of the defense against violations of healthcare information privacy and security.

Who Enforces HIPAA in Non-Criminal Cases?

Though criminal penalties can be metered out for violating HIPAA rules, most HIPAA violations are considered civil incidents, punishable via civil action. These non-criminal cases are enforced by the OCR.

The OCR thoroughly investigates complaints lodged against entities covered by HIPAA. During the investigation, if any entity’s non-compliance is identified, the OCR will provide the entity with detailed findings and will suggest a corrective action plan to address the issues.

In some cases, if an entity fails to take appropriate corrective actions, the OCR may impose penalties or financial settlements to ensure the entity complies with HIPAA rules.

Consequences of HIPAA Violations for Healthcare Professionals

HIPAA violations carry severe consequences for healthcare professionals. Violations are classified into four categories, each set with a respective penalty bracket:*

Tier 1: The person did not know and, by exercising reasonable diligence, would not have known of the violation. The penalty for this tier ranges from $127 to $63,973 per violation.

Tier 2: The violation resulted from reasonable cause and not from willful neglect. Fines fall between $1,280 to $63,973 per violation.

Tier 3: The violation resulted from willful neglect, but the violation was corrected within 30 days. Penalties range from $12,794 to $63,973 per violation.

Tier 4: The violation resulted from willful neglect and was not corrected within 30 days. Fines soar from $63,973 to a staggering $1.9 million per violation.

*Numbers published March 2022. The inflation multiplier (1.07745) will be applied to 2023

In extreme cases involving 'knowing neglect' of PHI security, criminal penalties may be applied, including imprisonment.

HIPAA violations can not only dent the reputation of healthcare providers but also leave them grappling with hefty financial penalties. Therefore, it’s crucial for every healthcare professional to understand HIPAA regulations and align their practices accordingly.


HIPAA enforcement is a complex field with numerous stakeholders, including federal agencies, state governments, healthcare professionals, and individuals. However, understanding who enforces the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules, the role of authorities in non-criminal cases, and the possible consequences of HIPAA violations for healthcare professionals provides a broad overview of this landscape.

It's incumbent for those in healthcare, directly and indirectly, to be aware of these regulatory pressures and comply with them. Only then can we ensure a healthcare system that respects patient privacy and maintains data security, thereby promoting a healthier future.

Want to be an expert in navigating the complex world of healthcare privacy? With OCR, State Attorneys General, and even local regulators all playing crucial parts in enforcing HIPAA laws, there's a lot to grasp. Check out HIPAA Exams' diverse range of courses. Equip yourself with the knowledge and skills to accurately understand and apply HIPAA's requirements in your professional life. Don't wait; start learning today!