Posts Tagged Healthcare Data Breaches

HITECH Compliance Offers Challenges for IT

Posted by on Tuesday, 19 June, 2012

Outside of the finance industry, healthcare is one of the most regulated industries in the U.S.  As the healthcare policy debates rage on, one issue on which most Americans can agree is the need to keep personal healthcare information confidential and secure.

Major regulations such as HIPAA and HITECH have been passed into law to increase the security of our personal health information.  For better or worse, a major portion of the burden to comply with the regulations and all of their revisions falls upon the IT professionals.

HIPAA and HITECH: a brief overviewHITECH, data security, compliance

While HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act), passed in 1996, has received the most attention (see our blog), the more recently implemented HITECH law is quickly having an impact.

HITECH (Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act) was passed into law in 2009. The goal for the  HITECH is to strengthen the civil and criminal enforcement of already existing HIPAA regulations that require health organizations and their business partners to report data breaches.  HITECH also increases the penalties for security violations, and implements new rules for tracking and disclosing patient information breaches.

Data breach notification

Under HITECH rules, all data breaches of PHI (protected health information) must be reported to the individuals whose data was compromised. This includes reporting files that may have been hacked, stolen, lost or even transmitted in an unencrypted fashion.  If such a breach — or potential breach — affects 500 people or more, the media must also be notified.   Breaches of all sizes must always be reported to the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), but if fewer than 500 individuals’ records are affected, healthcare organizations can report the breach via the HHS website on an annual basis.  Larger breaches must be reported to HHS within 60 days.

Penalties for data breach

The HITECH Act implements a four tier system of financial penalties assessed based on the level of “willful neglect” a healthcare organization demonstrated resulting in the breach. Fines range from  $100 per breached record for unintended violations all the way up to $50,000 per record (with an annual cap of $1.5 million) when “willful neglect” is demonstrated.

Access to electronic health records (EHRs)

HITECH requires that the software that a health organization uses to manage its EHRs must make a person’s electronic PHI records available to the patient and yet remain protected from data breach by encrypting the data and securing the connection.  Not surprisingly, email is not considered a secure method of data transmission.

Business associates

Before HITECH,  business associates of healthcare organizations were not held directly liable for privacy and security under the HIPAA rules, even though they had access to PHI.  HITECH now requires that all business associates with access to PHI are subject to the HIPAA rules and must maintain Business Associate Agreements with the healthcare organization that provides the PHI.  Business associates are also required to report any data breaches and are subject to the same penalties as their healthcare business partners.

Daniel Cheney

Daniel has been the IT Director at a healthcare company for the last 12 years and a longtime beneficiary of GoAnywhere Director and the IBM i platform. He is also a technical analyst and writer for various technical and social media projects with Humanized Communications.

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Top 10 Healthcare Data Breaches in 2010

Posted by on Monday, 6 June, 2011

Most data breaches are caused by simple acts of carelessness.

Last March the Ponemon Institute released its findings for the 2010 Annual Study: U.S. Cost of a Data Breach. The study — based on the actual data breach experiences of 51 U.S. companies from 15 different industry sectors — revealed that data breaches grew more costly for the fifth year in a row. They jumped from $204 per compromised record in 2009 to $214 in 2010.

The increase in cost, however, pales in comparison to the reputational cost of companies that have been victimized, particularly in the healthcare sector.

HITECH builds Wall of Shame

Consider that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has begun posting the data breaches affecting 500 or more individuals as required by section 13402(e)(4) of the HITECH Act.  The New York Times has labeled this site “The Wall of Shame”.  Why? Because if patients have no faith in electronic record-keeping, the future of healthcare record automation will be jeopardized: Law suits and government regulation will bury any cost-savings.

The Back Stories of Healthcare Data Breaches

What are the stories behind the most severe healthcare sector data breaches reported in 2010?  Here are the ten most expensive stories, in ascending order of cost, documented in the Privacy Rights Clearing House database. While they’re sober reminders of the problem of keeping data secure, they’re also instructive: none of these breaches were malicious hacks, but were instead the results of theft, poor record-keeping policies, and simple human error.

(Note that the estimate of liability uses the $214/ record cost identified by the Ponemon Institute in its annual report. We have purposely not published the names of the reporting institutions.)

10th Most Expensive: Physician Computer Theft Exposes 25,000

On June 29th of 2010 a thief stole four computers from a physician specialist’s office in Fort Worth, Texas.  This theft resulted in an estimated 25,000 patient records being exposed.  The patient records contained addresses, Social Security numbers and dates of birth. Estimated liability: $5,350,000.

9th: Medical Center Theft Exposes 39,000

On the weekend of May 22nd, 2010 two computers were stolen from a medical center in the Bronx. Names, medical record numbers, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, insurers, and hospital admission dates of patients were known to be on the computers.  Total records compromised: 39,000. Estimated liability: $8,346,000.

8th: Optometrist’s Computer Theft Exposes 40,000

A computer stolen from an Optometry office in Santa Clara, California on Friday April 2nd, 2010 contained patient names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, birth dates, family member names, medical insurance information, medical records, and in some cases, Social Security numbers. Though the files were password protected, they were not encrypted.  A total of 40,000 records were lost, with an estimated liability of $8,560,000.

7th: Medical Records Found at Dump Expose 44,600

Medical records were found at a public dump in Georgetown, Massachusetts on August 13th, 2010. The records contained names, addresses, diagnosis, Social Security numbers, and insurance information. A medical billing company that had worked for multiple hospitals was responsible for depositing the records at the dump. The exposure required the hospitals to notify patients – an effort that continues to this date.  The total number of records known to have been exposed is 44,600, but the search continues.  Estimated liability: $9,544,400.

6th: Consultant Laptop Stolen Exposing 76,000

On March 20th, 2010, in Chicago, Illinois, a contractor working for a large dental chain found his laptop stolen.  The computer held a database containing the personal information of approximately 76,000 clients, including first names, last names and Social Security numbers. Estimated liability: $16,264,000.

5th: Lost CDs Expose 130,495

On June 30th, 2010 a medical center in the Bronx reported that it had failed to receive multiple CDs containing patient personal information that was sent to it by its billing associate.  These CDs were lost in transit. Information of 130,495 patients included the dates of birth, driver’s license numbers, descriptions of medical procedures, addresses, and Social Security numbers.  Estimated liability of $27,925,930.

4th: Portable Hard Drive Theft Exposes 180,111

In Westmont, Illinois, a medical management resources company reported on May 10, 2010 that a portable hard drive had been stolen after a break-in.  The company believes the hard drive contained personally identifiable information about patients including name, address, phone, date of birth, and Social Security number. The company acknowledged that this hard drive had no encryption.  As a result, 180,111 records were exposed, creating an estimated liability of $38,543,754.

3rd: Leased Digital Copier Leaks 409,262

On April 10th, 2010 a New York managed care service in the Bronx reported that it was notifying 409,262 current and former customers, employees, providers, applicants for jobs, plan members, and applicants for coverage that their personal data might have been accidentally leaked through a leased digital copier. The exposure resulted because the hard drive of the leased digital copier had not been erased when returned to the warehouse. Estimated liability: $87,582,068.

2nd: Training Center Hard Drive Theft Center Exposes 1,023,209

The theft of 57 hard drives from a medical insurance company’s Tennessee training facility in October of 2010 put at risk the private information of an estimated 1,023,209. customers in at least 32 states. The hard drives contained audio files and video files as well as data containing customers’ personal data and diagnostic information, date of birth, and Social Security numbers, names and insurance ID numbers. That data was encoded but not encrypted. Estimated liability to date: $218,966,726.

Most Expensive of 2010: Two Laptops Stolen Exposes 860,000

A Gainsville, Florida health insurance company reported in November of 2010 that two stolen laptops contained the protected information of 1.2 million people.  This is an on-going story, as new estimates are calculated.  To date, the estimated liability is $256,800,000.

Preventing Exposure: Data Encryption

These cases document that the majority of the data breaches which occurred in 2010 were not the result of hacking activities, or even unauthorized access by personnel. The greatest data losses were simply the result of computer theft of portable devices and misplaced media.  Had the contents of the files been encrypted, this could have significantly reduced the risks and liabilities of these data losses.

Time and time again, industry experts point to data encryption as the key method by which organizations can prevent inadvertent exposure of sensitive data.

Of course, no healthcare organization wants to be listed on the US Department of Health and Humans Services’ Wall of Shame.  And the costs – in dollars and in reputation – can be extraordinary.

Isn’t it about time your management got serious about data encryption?

Thomas Stockwell

Thomas M. Stockwell is one of Linoma Software's subject matter experts and a top blogger in the industry. He is Principle Analyst at IT Incendiary, with more than 20 years of experience in IT as a Systems Analyst, Engineer, and IS Director.

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