Live with Purpose, But Live with Protection

Avoiding Malpractice: Tips for Social Workers to Manage Risk

Live with Purpose, But Live with Protection (Part 1)

Living with purpose certainly characterizes what is at the heart of the profession of social work. Equally as important is to live with protection. Social workers need to make sure they are protected from the many risks that often occur in the social work profession.

There is an overwhelming and increasing number of claims from client information breached through stolen or lost laptops and devices and 75% of insurance carriers listed this as the most likely cause of a breach. Beyond this is the second most frequent breach, which is caused by information exchange and the related steps involved regarding information exchange.

According to Other Voices: The Star-Telegram, August 19, 2015, “Social workers can play a role in corporate setting”, by Cossy Hough; there is an emerging trend for social workers to move into corporate America. Research from both NASW Assurance Services (ASI), and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics project a 4% average annual growth rate in social worker job growth through 2022.

ASI research indicates that many of these jobs are opening in the corporate world as businesses seek to improve productivity through employee programs augmented by on-staff social workers. They also seek to improve short-term disability claims and reduce absenteeism by leveraging the benefits of social workers on staff, similar to the healthcare system. These on-staff social workers aid in conflict resolution, improve intra-company communication and boost employee human behavior. Examples include helping with child care, predictable transportation, financial coaching, and many legal issues such as marriage, custody, divorce, wills, and life choices in concert with the company’s Human Resources department.

A social worker should always be cognizant of the fact that their employer’s insurance plan places the company as insured first. The social worker following the company rules may not be enough. If you work as a social worker for a company…..

  • What happens if your laptop or cell phone are stolen with your client records, phone numbers, and names on them?
  • What happens if you entrusted client employee files to a third party for safe keeping and they were breached or lost?
  • What happens if you are sued while doing your job at the company and your employer refuses to cover you or to defend you?
  • What happens when claims and lawsuits arise against you after you leave the employer either for another job or retire?

A social worker cannot assume that her/his employer will assume liability and that the employer’s liability insurance will extend to the employee. The employer‘s priority is to the employer. That is why it is important for a social worker to assess all of the risks and purchase liability insurance on their own. Not all professional liability insurance policies on the market today cover any or all information breaches and computer device coverage. The few cyber liability insurance policies and endorsements on the market today may not cover all types of breaches.

NASW Assurance Services created a suite of liability insurance products (financially backed by Lloyd’s, London and Swiss Re) that serve social workers well in virtually any situation. Many perils and combinations of risks, including first-party and third-party cyber liability, and HIPAA requirements are covered by the NASW RRG Professional Liability Product Suite.

The Federal government and many states have enacted laws with safeguards, notification requirements, and penalties to protect the security and confidentiality of information, and specifically medical information, as it is stored conventionally, electronically, and shared electronically. An example of this aimed directly at the healthcare professionals began in March 2013, when Congress passed the 45 CFR Part 160 HIPAA HITECH Law which became enforceable on many occupations including social workers and the behavioral health industry effective September 2013. This makes social workers liable for data privacy breach by third-party data management vendors used by social workers. Under HIPAA, and in many states under state law, the social worker is now ultimately responsible for protecting the client data no matter where the data is. The social worker has this duty, and the social worker is liable if the client data is compromised. This includes third-parties who the social worker hires to manage client records that become breached.

Regardless of your status as an employee or sole practitioner, this opens up many liabilities for the social worker in today’s technology driven world. The risks associated with doing business online and storing sensitive information electronically and on paper are increasing.

There is no doubt that social work is a noble profession with implicit values of service, social justice, human dignity, integrity, and clinical competence. Despite all of the sincere devotion provided by social workers, and whether or not they are employed with an Agency or by a company, they must thoroughly read their own insurance policies to assess the coverage.

Check out our Liability Suite of products at www.www.naswassurance.org/enroll-today

Published October 2015

Resources and References