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Florida Provider Pays $500K to Settle Potential HIPAA Violations

December 12, 2018
by Heather Landi, Associate Editor
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Florida-based Advanced Care Hospitalists PL (ACH) has agreed to pay $500,000 to the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to settle potential HIPAA compliance failures, including sharing protected health information with an unknown vendor without a business associate agreement.

ACH provides contracted internal medicine physicians to hospitals and nursing homes in west central Florida. ACH provided services to more than 20,000 patients annually and employed between 39 and 46 individuals during the relevant timeframe, according to OCR officials.

Between November 2011 and June 2012, ACH engaged the services of an individual that claimed to be a representative of a company named Doctor’s First Choice Billings, Inc. (First Choice). The individual provided medical billing services to ACH using First Choice’s name and website, but allegedly without the knowledge or permission of First Choice’s owner, according to OCR officials in a press release published last week.

A local hospital contacted ACH on February 11, 2014 and notified the organization that patient information was viewable on the First Choice website, including names, dates of birth and social security numbers. In response, ACH was able to identify at least 400 affected individuals and asked First Choice to remove the protected health information from its website. ACH filed a breach notification report with OCR on April 11, 2014, stating that 400 individuals were affected; however, after further investigation, ACH filed a supplemental breach report stating that an additional 8,855 patients could have been affected.

According to OCR’s investigation, ACH never entered into a business associate agreement with the individual providing medical billing services to ACH, as required by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy and Security Rules, and failed to adopt any policy requiring business associate agreements until April 2014. 

“Although ACH had been in operation since 2005, it had not conducted a risk analysis or implemented security measures or any other written HIPAA policies or procedures before 2014. The HIPAA Rules require entities to perform an accurate and thorough assessment of the potential risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of an entity’s electronic protected health information,” OCR officials stated in a press release.

In a statement, OCR Director Roger Severino said, “This case is especially troubling because the practice allowed the names and social security numbers of thousands of its patients to be exposed on the internet after it failed to follow basic security requirements under HIPAA.”

In addition to the monetary settlement, ACH will undertake a robust corrective action plan that includes the adoption of business associate agreements, a complete enterprise-wide risk analysis, and comprehensive policies and procedures to comply with the HIPAA Rules. 

In a separate case announced this week, a Colorado-based hospital, Pagosa Springs Medical Center, will pay OCR $111,400 to settle potential HIPAA violations after the hospital failed to terminate a former employee’s access to electronic protected health information (PHI).

Pagosa Springs Medical Center (PSMC) is a critical access hospital, that at the time of OCR’s investigation, provided more than 17,000 hospital and clinic visits annually and employs more than 175 individuals.

The settlement resolves a complaint alleging that a former PSMC employee continued to have remote access to PSMC’s web-based scheduling calendar, which contained patients’ electronic protected health information (ePHI), after separation of employment, according to OCR.

OCR’s investigation revealed that PSMC impermissibly disclosed the ePHI of 557 individuals to its former employee and to the web-based scheduling calendar vendor without a HIPAA required business associate agreement in place. 

The hospital also agreed to adopt a substantial corrective action plan as part of the settlement, and, as part of that plan, PSMC has agreed to update its security management and business associate agreement, policies and procedures, and train its workforce members regarding the same.

“It’s common sense that former employees should immediately lose access to protected patient information upon their separation from employment,” Severino said in a statement. “This case underscores the need for covered entities to always be aware of who has access to their ePHI and who doesn’t.”

Covered entities that do not have or follow procedures to terminate information access privileges upon employee separation risk a HIPAA enforcement action. Covered entities must also evaluate relationships with vendors to ensure that business associate agreements are in place with all business associates before disclosing protected health information. 

 

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Assessing the New Cybersecurity Practices Publication: Why Small and Medium-Sized Care Organizations Have Reason to Rejoice

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A new set of voluntary cybersecurity practices just released by HHS offers practical advice and conceptual supports that fill information gaps
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How helpful will the new set of voluntary cybersecurity practices that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released in late December, be, to the leaders of patient care organizations? Only time will tell, as part of the value of the release will only be made manifest as the leaders of patient care organizations move forward to implement some of those practices, and the potential success of such implementations is in some way measured and benchmarked.

But the release is a first start, at least. As Healthcare Informatics Associate Editor Heather Landi reported on January 2, HHS released the set of practices in the form of a publication “that marks the culmination of a two-year effort that brought together over 150 cybersecurity and healthcare experts from industry and the government under the Healthcare and Public Health (HPH) Sector Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience Public-Private Partnership.”

“Cybersecurity is everyone’s responsibility. It is the responsibility of every organization working in healthcare and public health.  In all of our efforts, we must recognize and leverage the value of partnerships among government and industry stakeholders to tackle the shared problems collaboratively,” Janet Vogel, HHS Acting Chief Information Security Officer (CISO), said in a statement published with the release of the new publication.

Health Industry Cybersecurity Practices: Managing Threats and Protecting Patients (HICP), the primary publication of the Cybersecurity Act of 2015, Section 405(d) Task Group, aims to raise awareness, provide vetted cybersecurity practices, and move organizations towards consistency in mitigating the current most pertinent cybersecurity threats to the sector,” HHS officials stated. “It seeks to aid healthcare and public health organizations to develop meaningful cybersecurity objectives and outcomes. The publication includes a main document, two technical volumes, and resources and templates.”

The overall publication consists of several sections, the first being the HICP, which “examines cybersecurity threats and vulnerabilities that affect the healthcare industry. It explores five current threats and presents 10 practices to mitigate those threats; “Technical Volume 1: Cybersecurity Practices for Small Health Care Organizations,” which offers cybersecurity practices for small healthcare organizations; “Technical Volume 2: Cybersecurity Practices for Medium and Large Health Care Organizations”; the “Resources and Templates” portion, which “includes a variety of cybersecurity resources and templates for end users to reference”; and a Cybersecurity Practices Assessments Toolkit, which “helps organizations prioritize their cyber threats and develop their own action plans using the assessment methodology outlined in the Resources and Templates volume”—that last section being still under development as of Jan. 2.

As Landi reported, “The HICP publication aims to provide cybersecurity practices for this vast, diverse, and open sector to ultimately improve the security and safety of patients. The main document of the publication explores the five most relevant and current threats to the industry. It also recommends 10 cybersecurity practices to help mitigate these threats.”

What’s more, she wrote, “The main document presents real-life events and statistics that demonstrate the financial and patient care impacts of cyber incidents.  It also lays out a call to action for all industry stakeholders, from C-suite executives and healthcare practitioners to IT security professionals, that protective and preventive measures must be taken now. The publication also includes two technical volumes geared for IT and IT security professionals, one focusing on cybersecurity practices for small healthcare organizations, and one focused on practices for medium and large healthcare organizations.”

Among the salient statistics reported in the HICP:

  • Fifty-eight percent of malware attack victims are small businesses.
  • In 2017, cyber-attacks cost small and medium-sized businesses an average of $2.2 million.
  • Sixty of small businesses go out of business within six months of an attack.
  • And, 90 percent of small businesses do not use any data protection at all for company and customer information.

How does that translate into impacts on smaller healthcare organizations? Among other incidents, the HICP notes that:

  • A popular orthopedic practice announced that its computer system was hacked via breach of a software vendor’s log-in credentials. This breach put just under a half-million people at risk of identity theft. Of those, 500 patient profiles appeared for sale on the dark web. The information for sale included names, addresses, social security numbers, and other personally identifiable information (PII). Although not posted for sale, pertinent PHI such as X-ray results and medical diagnoses were also stolen.

 

  • A rural hospital had to replace its entire computer network after a ransomware cyber-attack froze the hospital’s electronic health record (EHR) system. Doctors were unable to review their patients’ medical histories or transmit laboratory and pharmacy orders. Officials were unable to restore essential services and could not pay the ransom for the return of their system. After consultations with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and cybersecurity experts, hospital officials made the difficult decision to replace the entire system.
  •  

Of particular practicality is some of the very basic advice given to the leaders of smaller healthcare organizations. To wit: “Doctors and nurses know that hand sanitizing is critical to prevent the spread of germs. That does not mean health care workers wash up as often as they should. Similarly, we know that cybersecurity practices reduce the risk of cyber-attacks and data breaches. Just as we are able to protect our patients from infection, we should all work towards protecting patient data to allow physicians and caregivers to trust the data and systems that enable quality health care. Just as health care professionals must wash their hands before caring for patients, health care organizations must practice good ‘cyber hygiene’ in today’s digital world, including it as a part of daily universal precautions,” the HICP notes. “Like the simple act of hand-washing, a culture of cyber-awareness does not have to be complicated or expensive for a small organization. It must simply be effective at enabling organization members to protect information that is critical to the organization’s patients and operations. Your organization’s vigilance against cyber-attacks will increase concurrently with your and your workforce’s knowledge of cybersecurity. This knowledge will enable you to advance to the next series of cybersecurity Practices, expanding your organization’s awareness of and ability to thwart cyber threats.”

Meanwhile, both smaller and larger patient care organizations will benefit from the technical supports, including a Security Risk Assessment Tool, a set of recommendations on medical devices and cybersecurity, and an incident response risk management handbook.

What this set of resources does is to fill a gap between theory and technical practice in a key area. Will it shift the entire landscape of cybersecurity for patient care organizations? No, that would be a far-too-ambitious goal. But the healthcare IT leaders of smaller and medium-sized patient care organizations in particular, will welcome practice advice and supports, as they move forward in their journeys around cybersecurity. Any such journey is inherently challenging, and federal publications and resources like these will be of real value in moving patient care organization HIT leaders forward.

 

 

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HHS Releases Voluntary Healthcare Cybersecurity Practices

January 2, 2019
by Heather Landi, Associate Editor
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In late December, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released voluntary cybersecurity practices to the healthcare industry with the aim of providing practice guidelines to cost-effectively reduce cybersecurity risks.

The “Health Industry Cybersecurity Practices (HICP): Managing Threats and Protecting Patients” publication aims to provide guidance to healthcare organizations of all types and sizes, ranging from local clinics to large hospital systems.

The industry-led effort was in response to a mandate set forth by the Cybersecurity Act of 2015 Section 405(d), to develop practical cybersecurity guidelines to cost-effectively reduce cybersecurity risks for the healthcare industry.

According to HHS, the publication marks the culmination of a two-year effort that brought together over 150 cybersecurity and healthcare experts from industry and the government under the Healthcare and Public Health (HPH) Sector Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience Public-Private Partnership.

“Cybersecurity is everyone’s responsibility. It is the responsibility of every organization working in healthcare and public health.  In all of our efforts, we must recognize and leverage the value of partnerships among government and industry stakeholders to tackle the shared problems collaboratively,” Janet Vogel, HHS Acting Chief Information Security Officer (CISO), said in a statement.

While technologies are vital to the healthcare industry and help provide life-saving treatments and improve patient care, these same technologies are vulnerable to myriad attacks from adversaries, ranging from criminals and hacktivists to nation-states, according to HHS. These technologies can be exploited to gain access to personal patient data or render entire hospital systems inoperable. Recent cyber-attacks against the nation’s healthcare industry continue to highlight the importance of ensuring these technologies are safe and secure.

“The healthcare industry is truly a varied digital ecosystem. We heard loud and clear through this process that providers need actionable and practical advice, tailored to their needs, to manage modern cyber threats. That is exactly what this resource delivers; recommendations stratified by the size of the organization, written for both the clinician as well as the IT subject matter expert,” Erik Decker, industry co-lead and Chief Information Security and Privacy Officer for the University of Chicago Medicine, said in a statement.

The HICP publication aims to provide cybersecurity practices for this vast, diverse, and open sector to ultimately improve the security and safety of patients. The main document of the publication explores the five most relevant and current threats to the industry. It also recommends 10 cybersecurity practices to help mitigate these threats.

The main document presents real-life events and statistics that demonstrate the financial and patient care impacts of cyber incidents.  It also lays out a call to action for all industry stakeholders, from C-suite executives and healthcare practitioners to IT security professionals, that protective and preventive measures must be taken now. The publication also includes two technical volumes geared for IT and IT security professionals, one focusing on cybersecurity practices for small healthcare organizations, and one focused on practices for medium and large healthcare organizations.

 

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CynergisTek, Protenus Partner on Privacy Monitoring Programs

December 26, 2018
by Heather Landi, Associate Editor
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CynergisTek, Inc., an Austin, Texas-based healthcare cybersecurity firm, is partnering with Protenus, a healthcare compliance analytics company, to combine the companies’ technology tools and services with a focus on patient privacy monitoring programs.

The partnership will grant health systems access to Protenus’ analytics platform that leverages artificial intelligence to gather data related to potential patient privacy risks, along with CynergisTek’s patient privacy monitoring services.

According to the Protenus research, insider incidents accounted for 23 percent of all breaches that occurred at health systems in Q3 2018. This figure will only continue increasing, indicating that now more than ever, health systems need a cost-effective solution to meet the daily challenges of managing patient privacy.

To address this need, CynergisTek and Protenus formed a preferred partnership to combine CynergisTek’s healthcare consulting experience and privacy programs with Protenus’ healthcare analytics technology to offer health systems both the people, processes, and technology components of a strong patient privacy monitoring program, according to the companies.

“As health systems face mounting challenges in creating and maintaining robust patient privacy monitoring programs, we identified a need to partner with a company offering complementary services so that health systems can act on the insights uncovered by our analytics,” Nick Culbertson, CEO and co-founder of Protenus, said in a statement.

 “Data privacy is evolving as a dominate theme in conversations, both in healthcare and other industries, and health systems need to take an end-to-end approach to patient privacy to truly address this complex and mission-critical challenge,” Mac McMillan, CEO and president of CynergisTek, said in a statement.

 

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