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Don’t Worry About HIPAA – When Your License Is At-Risk!

Posted on October 24, 2016 I Written By

The following is a guest blog post by Mike Semel, President and Chief Compliance Officer at Semel Consulting.
medical-license-revoked
Not long ago I was at an ambulance service for a HIPAA project when one of their paramedics asked what the odds were that his employer would get a HIPAA fine if he talked about one of his patients. I replied that the odds of a HIPAA penalty were very slim compared to him losing his state-issued paramedic license, that would cost him his job and his career. He could also be sued. He had never thought of these risks.

Doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, psychologists, nurses, EMT’s, paramedics, social workers, mental health counselors, and pharmacists, are just some of the professions that have to abide by confidentiality requirements to keep their licenses.

License and ethical requirements have required patient and client confidentiality long before HIPAA and other confidentiality laws went into effect.  HIPAA became effective in 2003, 26 years after I became a New York State certified Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). Way back in 1977, the very first EMT class I took talked about my responsibility to keep patient information confidential, or I would risk losing my certification.

While licensed professionals may not talk about an individual patient or client, weak cybersecurity controls could cause a breach of ALL of their patient and client information – instantly.
health-data-encryption
Most certified and licensed professionals will agree that they are careful not to talk about patients and clients, but how well do they secure their data? Are their laptops encrypted? Are security patches and updates current? Do they have a business-class firewall protecting their network? Do they have IT security professionals managing their technology?
psychologist-loses-license-prostitute-takes-laptop
Lawyers have been sanctioned for breaching confidentiality. Therapists have lost their licenses. In one well-publicized case a psychologist lost his license when a prostitute stole his laptop. In rare cases a confidentiality breach will result in a jail sentence, along with the loss of a license.

Cyber Security Ethics Requirements
Lawyers are bound by ethical rules that apply to confidentiality and competence. The competence requirements typically restrict lawyers from taking cases in unfamiliar areas of the law. However, The American Bar Association has published model guidance that attorneys not competent in the area of cyber security must hire professionals to help them secure their data.

The State Bar of North Dakota adopted technology amendments to its ethics rules in early 2016. The State Bar of Wisconsin has published a guide entitled Cybersecurity and SCR Rules of Professional Conduct. In 2014, The New York State Bar Association adopted Social Media Ethics Guidelines. Lawyers violating these ethical requirements can be sanctioned or disbarred.

A State Bar of Arizona ethics opinion said “an attorney must either have the competence to evaluate the nature of the potential threat to the client’s electronic files and to evaluate and deploy appropriate computer hardware and software to accomplish that end, or if the attorney lacks or cannot reasonably obtain that competence, to retain an expert consultant who does have such competence.”

Some licensed professionals argue that their ethical and industry requirements mean they don’t have to comply with other requirements. Ethical obligations do not trump federal and state laws. Lawyers defending health care providers in malpractice cases are HIPAA Business Associates. Doctors that have to comply with HIPAA also must adhere to state data breach laws. Psychiatric counselors, substance abuse therapists, pharmacists, and HIV treatment providers have to comply with multiple federal and state confidentiality laws in addition to their license requirements.

There are some exemptions from confidentiality laws and license requirements when it comes to reporting child abuse, notifying law enforcement when a patient becomes a threat, and in some court proceedings.

While the odds of a federal penalty for a confidentiality breach are pretty slim, it is much more likely that someone will complain to your licensing board and kill your career. Don’t take the chance after all you have gone through to earn your license.

About Mike Semel
mike-semel-ambulance
Mike Semel is the President and Chief Compliance Officer for Semel Consulting. He has owned IT businesses for over 30 years, has served as the Chief Information Officer for a hospital and a K-12 school district, and as the Chief Operating Officer for a cloud backup company. Mike is recognized as a HIPAA thought leader throughout the healthcare and IT industries, and has spoken at conferences including NASA’s Occupational Health conference, the New York State Cybersecurity conference, and many IT conferences. He has written HIPAA certification classes and consults with healthcare organizations, cloud services, Managed Service Providers, and other business associates to help build strong cybersecurity and compliance programs. Mike can be reached at 888-997-3635 x 101 or mike@semelconsulting.com.

States Strengthen Data Breach Laws & Regulations

Posted on October 18, 2016 I Written By

The following is a guest blog post by Mike Semel, President and Chief Compliance Officer at Semel Consulting.

If your cyber security and compliance program is focused on just one regulation, like HIPAA or banking laws, many steps you are taking are probably wrong.

Since 2015 a number of states have amended their data breach laws which can affect ALL BUSINESSES, even those out of state, that store information about their residents. The changes address issues identified in breach investigations, and public displeasure with the increasing number of data breaches that can result in identity theft.

Forty-seven states, plus DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands, protect personally identifiable information, that includes a person’s name plus their Driver’s License number, Social Security Number, and the access information for bank and credit card accounts.

Many organizations mistakenly focus only on the data in their main business application, like an Electronic Health Record system or other database they use for patients or clients. They ignore the fact that e-mails, reports, letters, spreadsheets, scanned images, and other loose documents contain data that is also protected by laws and regulations. These documents can be anywhere – on servers, local PC’s, portable laptops, tablets, mobile phones, thumb drives, CDs and DVDs, or somewhere up in the Cloud.

Some businesses also mistakenly believe that moving data to the cloud means that they do not have to have a secure office network. This is a fallacy because your cloud can be accessed by hackers if they can compromise the local devices you use to get to the cloud. In most cases there is local data even though the main business applications are in the cloud. Local computers should have business-class operating systems, with encryption, endpoint protection software, current security patches and updates, and strong physical security. Local networks need business-class firewalls with active intrusion prevention.

States are strengthening their breach laws to make up for weaknesses in HIPAA and other federal regulations. Between a state and federal law, whichever requirement is better for the consumer is what those storing data on that state’s residents (including out of state companies) must follow.

Some states have added to the types of information protected by their data breach reporting laws. Many states give their residents the right to sue organizations for not providing adequate cyber security protection. Many states have instituted faster reporting requirements than federal laws, meaning that incident management plans that are based on federal requirements may mean you will miss a shorter state reporting deadline.

In 2014, California began requiring mandatory free identity theft prevention services even when harm cannot be proven. This year Connecticut adopted a similar standard. Tennessee eliminated the encryption safe harbor, meaning that the loss of encrypted data must be reported. Nebraska eliminated the encryption safe harbor if the encryption keys might have been compromised. Illinois is adding medical records to its list of protected information.

Massachusetts requires every business to implement a comprehensive data protection program including a written plan. Texas requires that all businesses that have medical information (not just health care providers and health plans) implement a staff training program.

REGULATIONS

Laws are not the only regulations that can affect businesses.

The New York State Department of Financial Services has proposed that “any Person operating under or required to operate under a license, registration, charter, certificate, permit, accreditation or similar authorization under the banking law, the insurance law or the financial services law” comply with new cyber security regulations. This includes banks, insurance companies, investment houses, charities, and even covers organizations like car dealers and mortgage companies who handle consumer financial information.

The new rule will require:

  • A risk analysis
  • An annual penetration test and quarterly vulnerability assessments
  • Implementation of a cyber event detection system
  • appointing a Chief Information Security Officer (and maintaining compliance responsibility if outsourcing the function)
  • System logging and event management
  • A comprehensive security program including policies, procedures, and evidence of compliance

Any organization connected to the Texas Department of Health & Human Services must agree to its Data Use Agreement, which requires that a suspected breach of some of its information be reported within ONE HOUR of discovery.

MEDICAL RECORDS

People often assume that their medical records are protected by HIPAA wherever they are, and are surprised to find out this is not the case. HIPAA only covers organizations that bill electronically for health care services, validate coverage, or act as health plans (which also includes companies that self-fund their health plans).

  • Doctors that only accept cash do not have to comply with HIPAA.
  • Companies like fitness centers and massage therapists collect your medical information but are not covered by HIPAA because they do not bill health plans.
  • Health information in employment records are exempt from HIPAA, like letters from doctors excusing an employee after an injury or illness.
  • Workers Compensation records are exempt from HIPAA.

Some states protect medical information with every entity that may store it. This means that every business must protect medical information it stores, and must report it if it is lost, stolen, or accessed by an unauthorized person.

  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Illinois (beginning January 1, 2017)
  • Massachusetts
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • North Dakota
  • Oregon
  • Puerto Rico
  • Rhode Island
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • Wyoming

Most organizations are not aware that they are governed by so many laws and regulations. They don’t realize that information about their employees and other workforce members are covered. Charities don’t realize the risks they have protecting donor information, or the impact on donations a breach can cause when it becomes public.

We have worked with many healthcare and financial organizations, as well as charities and general businesses, to build cyber security programs that comply with federal and state laws, industry regulations, contractual obligations, and insurance policy requirements. We have been certified in our compliance with the federal NIST Cyber Security Framework (CSF) and have helped others adopt this security framework, that is gaining rapid acceptance.

About Mike Semel
mike-semel-hipaa-consulting
Mike Semel is the President and Chief Compliance Officer for Semel Consulting. He has owned IT businesses for over 30 years, has served as the Chief Information Officer for a hospital and a K-12 school district, and as the Chief Operating Officer for a cloud backup company. Mike is recognized as a HIPAA thought leader throughout the healthcare and IT industries, and has spoken at conferences including NASA’s Occupational Health conference, the New York State Cybersecurity conference, and many IT conferences. He has written HIPAA certification classes and consults with healthcare organizations, cloud services, Managed Service Providers, and other business associates to help build strong cybersecurity and compliance programs. Mike can be reached at 888-997-3635 x 101 or mike@semelconsulting.com.

HIPAA Cloud Bursts: New Guidance Proves Cloud Services Are Business Associates

Posted on October 10, 2016 I Written By

The following is a guest blog post by Mike Semel, President and Chief Compliance Officer at Semel Consulting.
hipaa-cloud
It’s over. New guidance from the federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR) confirms that cloud services that store patient information must comply with HIPAA.

Many cloud services and data centers have denied their obligations by claiming they are not HIPAA Business Associates because:

  1. They have no access to their customer’s electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI),
  2. Their customer’s ePHI is encrypted and they don’t have the encryption key,
  3. They never look at their customer’s ePHI,
  4. Their customers manage the access to their own ePHI in the cloud,
  5. Their terms and conditions prohibit the storage of ePHI, and
  6. They only store ePHI ‘temporarily’ and therefore must be exempt as a ‘conduit.’

Each of these excuses has been debunked in HIPAA Cloud Guidance released on October 7, 2016, by the Office for Civil Rights.

The new guidance clearly explains that any cloud vendor that stores ePHI must:

  1. Sign a HIPAA Business Associate Agreement,
  2. Conduct a HIPAA Security Risk Analysis,
  3. Comply with the HIPAA Privacy Rule,
  4. Implement HIPAA Security Rule safeguards the ePHI to ensure its confidentiality, integrity, and availability.
  5. Comply with the HIPAA Breach Reporting Rule by reporting any breaches of ePHI to its customers, and be directly liable for breaches it has caused.

The OCR provides examples of cloud services where clients manage access to their stored data. It discusses how a client can manage its users’ access to the stored data, while the cloud service manages the security of the technical infrastructure. Each needs to have a risk analysis that relates to its share of the responsibilities.
access-denied-phi
OCR also recently published guidance that cloud services cannot block or terminate a client’s access to ePHI, for example, if they are in a dispute with their customer or the customer hasn’t paid its bill.

As we have been saying for years, the 2013 HIPAA Omnibus Final Rule expanded the definition of HIPAA Business Associates to include anyone outside a HIPAA Covered Entity’s workforce that “creates, receives, maintains, or transmits PHI” on behalf of the Covered Entity. It defines subcontractors as anyone outside of a Business Associate’s workforce that “creates, receives, maintains, or transmits PHI on behalf of another Business Associate.”

‘Maintains’ means storing ePHI, and does not distinguish whether the ePHI is encrypted, whether the Business Associate looks at the ePHI, or even if its staff has physical access to the devices housing the ePHI (like servers stored in locked cabinets in a data center.)
hipaa-fines-payment
A small medical clinic was fined $100,000 for using a free cloud mail service to communicate ePHI, and for using a free online calendar to schedule patient visits. Recently the OCR issued a $2.7 million penalty against Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) partly for storing ePHI with a cloud service in the absence of a Business Associate Agreement.

“OHSU should have addressed the lack of a Business Associate Agreement before allowing a vendor to store ePHI,” said OCR Director Jocelyn Samuels.  “This settlement underscores the importance of leadership engagement and why it is so critical for the C-suite to take HIPAA compliance seriously.”

So what does this mean to you?

If you are Covered Entity or a Business Associate…

  • A common myth is that all ePHI is in a structured system like an Electronic Health Record system. This is wrong because ePHI includes anything that identifies a patient, nursing home resident, or health plan member that is identifiable (many more identifiers than just a name) and relates to the treatment, diagnosis, or payment for health care.

    EPHI can be in many forms. It does not have to be in a formal system like an Electronic Health Record (EHR) system, but can be contained in an e-mail, document, spreadsheet, scanned or faxed image, medical images, photographs, and even voice files, like a patient leaving a message in your computerized phone system requesting a prescription refill. During our risk analyses we find ePHI everywhere- on servers, local devices, portable media, mobile devices, and on cloud services. Our clients are usually shocked when we show them where their ePHI is hiding.

  • Never store ePHI in any cloud service without first knowing that the service is compliant with HIPAA and will sign a HIPAA Business Associate Agreement.

    This automatically disqualifies:

    • The free texting that came with your cellular phone service;
    • Free e-mail services like Gmail, Yahoo!, Hotmail, etc.;
    • Free e-mail from your Internet service provider like Cox, Comcast, Time Warner, Charter, CenturyLink, Verizon, Frontier, etc.;
    • Free file sharing services from DropBox, Box.com, Google Drive, etc.
    • Consumer-grade online backup services.

hacked-healthcare

  • Another common myth is that if data is stored in the cloud that you don’t have to secure your local devices. This is wrong because if someone can compromise a local device they can gain access to your data in the cloud. Be sure the mobile devices and local devices you use to access the cloud are properly protected, including those on your office network, and at users’ homes. This means that all mobile devices like phones and tablets; PCs; and laptops should be secured to prevent unauthorized access. All devices should be constantly updated with security patches, and anti-virus/anti-malware software should be installed and current. If ePHI is stored on a local network, it must be a domain with logging turned on, and logs retained for six years.
  • Use an e-mail service that complies with HIPAA. Microsoft Office 365 and similar business-class services advertise that they provide secure communications and will sign a HIPAA Business Associate Agreement.
  • You may be using a vendor to remotely filter your e-mail before it arrives in your e‑mail system. These services often retain a copy of each message so it can be accessed in the event your mail server goes down. Make sure your spam filtering service secures your messages and will sign a HIPAA Business Associate Agreement.

mobile-device-security-in-healthcare

  • Never send or text ePHI, even encrypted, to a caregiver or business associate at one of the free e-mail services.
  • Never use the free texting that came with your cell service to communicate with patients and other caregivers.
  • If you have sent text messages, e-mails, or stored documents containing ePHI using an unapproved service, delete those messages now, and talk with your compliance officer.
  • Review your HIPAA compliance program, to ensure it really meets all of HIPAA’s requirements under the Privacy, Security, and Data Breach Reporting rules. There are 176 auditable HIPAA items. You may also need to comply with other federal and state laws, plus contractual and insurance requirements.

If you are a cloud service, data center, or IT Managed Service Provider …

  • If you have been denying that you are a HIPAA Business Associate, read the new guidance document and re-evaluate your decisions.
  • If you do sign HIPAA Business Associate Agreements, you need to review your internal HIPAA compliance program to ensure that it meets all of the additional requirements in the HIPAA Privacy, Security, and Data Breach Reporting rules.
  • Also become familiar with state regulations that protect personally identifiable information, including driver’s license numbers, Social Security numbers, credit card and banking information. Know which states include protection of medical information, which will require breach reporting to the state attorney general in addition to the federal government. Know what states have more stringent reporting timeframes than HIPAA. You may have to deal with a large number of states with varying laws, depending on the data you house for customers.

hipaa-terms-and-conditions

  • Make sure your Service Level Agreements and Terms & Conditions are not in conflict with the new guidance about blocking access to ePHI. Compare your policies for non-payment with the new guidance prohibiting locking out access to ePHI.
  • Make sure your Service Level Agreements and Terms & Conditions include how you will handle a breach caused by your clients when they are using your service. Everyone should know what will happen, and who pays, if you get dragged into a client’s data breach investigation.
  • Make sure all of your subcontractors, and their subcontractors, comply with HIPAA. This includes the data centers you use to house and/or manage your infrastructure, programmers, help desk services, and backup vendors.
  • Learn about HIPAA. We see many cloud vendors that promote their HIPAA compliance but can seldom answer even the most basic questions about the compliance requirements. Some believe they are compliant because they sign Business Associate Agreements. That is just the first step in a complex process to properly secure data and comply with the multiple regulations that affect you. We have helped many cloud services build compliance programs that protected them against significant financial risks.
  • If you have administrative access to your client’s networks that contain ePHI, you are a Business Associate. Even if your clients have not signed, or refused to sign, Business Associate Agreements, you are still a Business Associate and must follow all of the HIPAA rules.
  • If you are reselling hosting services, co-location services, cloud storage, file sharing, online backup, Office 365/hosted Exchange, e-mail encryption, or spam filtering, you need to make sure your vendors are all compliant with HIPAA and that they will sign a Business Associate Agreement with you.
  • Look at all the services your regulated clients need. Include in your project and managed service proposals clear links between your clients’ needs and your services. For example, when installing replacement equipment, describe in detail the steps you will take to properly wipe and dispose of devices being replaced that have stored any ePHI. Link your managed services to your client’s needs and include reports that directly tie to your clients’ HIPAA requirements.

About Mike Semel
mike-semel-hipaa-consulting
Mike Semel is the President and Chief Compliance Officer for Semel Consulting. He has owned IT businesses for over 30 years, has served as the Chief Information Officer for a hospital and a K-12 school district, and as the Chief Operating Officer for a cloud backup company. Mike is recognized as a HIPAA thought leader throughout the healthcare and IT industries, and has spoken at conferences including NASA’s Occupational Health conference, the New York State Cybersecurity conference, and many IT conferences. He has written HIPAA certification classes and consults with healthcare organizations, cloud services, Managed Service Providers, and other business associates to help build strong cybersecurity and compliance programs. Mike can be reached at 888-997-3635 x 101 or mike@semelconsulting.com.

What Would a Patient-Centered Security Program Look Like? (Part 1 of 2)

Posted on August 29, 2016 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O'Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space. Andy also writes often for O'Reilly's Radar site (http://oreilly.com/) and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

HIMSS has just released its 2016 Cybersecurity Survey. I’m not writing this article just to say that the industry-wide situation is pretty bad. In fact, it would be worth hiring a truck with a megaphone to tour the city if the situation was good. What I want to do instead is take a critical look at the priorities as defined by HIMSS, and call for a different industry focus.

We should start off by dispelling notions that there’s anything especially bad about security in the health care industry. Breaches there get a lot of attention because they’re relatively new and because the personal sensitivity of the data strikes home with us. But the financial industry, which we all thought understood security, is no better–more than 500 million financial records were stolen during just a 12-month period ending in October 2014. Retailers are frequently breached. And what about one of the government institutions most tasked with maintaining personal data, the Office of Personnel Management?

The HIMSS report certainly appears comprehensive to a traditional security professional. They ask about important things–encryption, multi-factor authentication, intrusion detection, audits–and warn the industry of breaches caused by skimping on such things. But before we spend several billion dollars patching the existing system, let’s step back and ask what our priorities are.

People Come Before Technologies

One hint that HIMSS’s assumptions are skewed comes in the section of the survey that asked its respondents what motivated them to pursue greater security. The top motivation, at 76 percent, was a phishing attack (p. 6). In other words, what they noticed out in the field was not some technical breach but a social engineering attack on their staff. It was hard to interpret the text, but it appeared that the respondents had actually experienced these attacks. If so, it’s a reminder that your own staff is your first line of defense. It doesn’t matter how strong your encryption is if you give away your password.

It’s a long-held tenet of the security field that the most common source of breaches is internal: employees who were malicious themselves, or who mistakenly let intruders in through phishing attacks or other exploits. That’s why (you might notice) I don’t use the term “cybersecurity” in this article, even though it’s part of the title of the HIMSS report.

The security field has standardized ways of training staff to avoid scams. Explain to them the most common vectors of attack. Check that they’re creating strong passwords, where increased computing power is creating an escalating war (and the value of frequent password changes has been challenged). Best yet, use two-factor authentication, which may help you avoid the infuriating burden of passwords. Run mock phishing scams to test your users. Set up regular audits of access to sensitive data–a practice that HIMSS found among only 60% of respondents (p. 3). And give someone the job of actually checking the audit logs.

Why didn’t HIMSS ask about most of these practices? It began the project with a technology focus instead a human focus. We’ll take the reverse approach in the second part of this article.

Attackers Try To Sell 600K Patient Records

Posted on July 22, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

New research has concluded that attackers recently infiltrated U.S. healthcare institutions and stole at least 600,000 patient records, then attempted to sell more than 3 TB of associated data. The attacks, which were discovered by security firm InfoArmor, targeted not only hospitals, but also private clinics and vendors of medical equipment and supplies such as orthopedics, eWeek reports.

According to InfoArmor, the attacker gained access to the patient data by exploiting weak user credentials, and hacked Remote Desktop Protocol connections on some servers with static external IP addresses. The data thief also used a local privilege escalation exploit to access system files for added patching and backdooring, InfoArmor chief intelligence officer Andrew Komarov told eWeek.

And sadly, some healthcare institutions made it pretty easy for intruders. In some cases, data thieves were able to exfiltrate data stored in Microsoft Access desktop databases without any special user access segregation or rights control in place, Komarov told the magazine.

Future exploits may emerge through medical device connections, as many institutions aren’t paying enough attention to device security, he warns.”[Providers] think that the medical device is just a device for their specific function and sometimes they don’t [have] knowledge of misconfigured devices in their networks,” Komarov said.

So what will become of the data?  Many things, and none of them good. Some cyber criminals will sell Social Security numbers and other scammers will use to sell fraudulent healthcare services,. Cyber-grifters who steal a patient’s history of illness and their biography can use them to take advantage of consumers, he pointed out. And to sharpen their con, such criminals can even buy select data focused on geographic regions, Komarov noted in a follow-up chat with me.

To address exploits engineered by remote access sessions, one consulting firm is pitching technology allowing administrators to go over remote sessions with a fine-toothed comb.

Balazs Scheidler, CTO of security vendor BalaBit, notes that while remote access to internal IT resources is common, using protocols such as Microsoft Remote Desktop or Citrix ICA, IT managers don’t always have enough visibility into who’s accessing systems, when they are logging in and from where systems are being accessed. BalaBit is pitching a system which offers “CCTV-like” recording of user sessions, including screen contents, mouse movements, clicks and keystrokes.

But the truth is, regardless of what approach providers take, they simply have to step up security measures across the board. If attackers can access your data through a vulnerable Microsoft Access database, clearly something is out of order. And in fact many cases, it’s just that easy for attackers to get into your network.

NFL Players’ Medical Records Stolen

Posted on June 21, 2016 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

I’d been meaning to write about this story for a while now, but finally got around to it. In case you missed it, Thousands of NFL players’ medical records were stolen. Here’s a piece of the DeadSpin summary of the incident:

In late April, the NFL recently informed its players, a Skins athletic trainer’s car was broken into. The thief took a backpack, and inside that backpack was a cache of electronic and paper medical records for thousands of players, including NFL Combine attendees from the last 13 years. That would encompass the vast majority of NFL players

The Redskins later issues this statement:

The Washington Redskins can confirm that a theft occurred mid-morning on April 15 in downtown Indianapolis, where a thief broke through the window of an athletic trainer’s locked car. No social security numbers, Protected Health Information (PHI) under HIPAA, or financial information were stolen or are at risk of exposure.

The laptop was password-protected but unencrypted, but we have no reason to believe the laptop password was compromised. The NFL’s electronic medical records system was not impacted.

It’s interesting that the Redskins said that it didn’t include any PHI that would be covered by HIPAA rules and regulations. I was interested in how HIPAA would apply to an NFL team, so I reached out to David Harlow for the answer. David Harlow, Health Blawg writer, offered these insights into whether NFL records are required to comply with HIPAA or not:

These records fall in a gray zone between employment records and health records. Clearly the NFL understands what’s at stake if, as reported, they’ve proactively reached out to the HIPAA police. At least one federal court is on record in a similar case saying, essentially, C’mon, you know you’re a covered entity; get with the program.

Michael Magrath, current Chairman, HIMSS Identity Management Task Force, and Director of Healthcare Business, VASCO Data Security offered this insight into the breach:

This is a clear example that healthcare breaches are not isolated to healthcare organizations. They apply to employers, including the National Football League. Teams secure and protect their playbooks and need to apply that philosophy to securing their players’ medical information.

Laptop thefts are common place and one of the most common entries (310 incidents) on the HHS’ Office of Civil Rights portal listing Breaches Affecting 500 or More Individuals. Encryption is one of the basic requirements to secure a laptop, yet organizations continue to gamble without it and innocent victims can face a lifetime of identity theft and medical identity theft.

Assuming the laptop was Windows based, security can be enhanced by replacing the static Windows password with two-factor authentication in the form of a one-time password. Without the authenticator to generate the one-time password, gaining entry to the laptop will be extremely difficult. By combining encryption and strong authentication to gain entry into the laptop the players and prospects protected health information would not be at risk, all because organizations and members wish to avoid few moments of inconvenience.

This story brings up some important points. First, healthcare is far from the only industry that has issues with breaches and things like stolen or lost laptops. Second, healthcare isn’t the only one that sees the importance of encrypting mobile devices. However, despite the importance, many organizations still aren’t doing so. Third, HIPAA is an interesting law since it only covers PHI and covered entities. HIPAA omnibus expanded that to business associates. However, there are still a bunch of grey areas that aren’t sure if HIPAA applies. Plus, there are a lot of white areas where your health information is stored and HIPAA doesn’t apply.

Long story short, be smart and encrypt your health data no matter where it’s stored. Be careful where you share your health data. Anyone could be breached and HIPAA will only protect you so much (covered entity or not).

Don’t Blame HIPAA: It Didn’t Require Orlando Regional Medical Center To Call the President

Posted on June 13, 2016 I Written By

The following is a guest blog post by Mike Semel, President of Semel Consulting. As a Healthcare Scene community, our hearts go out to all the victims of this tragedy.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said the influx of patients to the hospitals created problems due to confidentiality regulations, which he worked to have waived for victims’ families.

“The CEO of the hospital came to me and said they had an issue related to the families who came to the emergency room. Because of HIPAA regulations, they could not give them any information,” Dyer said. “So I reached out to the White House to see if we could get the HIPAA regulations waived. The White House went through the appropriate channels to waive those so the hospital could communicate with the families who were there.”    Source: WBTV.com

I applaud the Orlando Regional Medical Center for its efforts to help the shooting victims. As the region’s trauma center, I think it could have done a lot better by not letting HIPAA get in the way of communicating with the patients’ families and friends.

In the wake of the horrific nightclub shooting, the hospital made things worse for the victim’s families and friends. And it wasn’t necessary, because built into HIPAA is a hospital’s ability to share information without calling the President of the United States. There are other exemptions for communicating with law enforcement.

The Orlando hospital made this situation worse for the families when its Mass Casualty Incident (MCI) plan should have anticipated the situation. A trauma center should have been better prepared than to ask the mayor for help.

As usual, HIPAA got the blame for someone’s lack of understanding about HIPAA. Based on my experience, many executives think they are too busy, or think themselves too important, to learn about HIPAA’s fundamental civil rights for patients. Civil Rights? HIPAA is enforced by the US Department of Health & Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights.

HIPAA compliance and data security are both executive level responsibilities, although many executives think it is something that should get tasked out to a subordinate. Having to call the White House because the hospital didn’t understand that HIPAA already gave it the right to talk to the families is shameful. It added unnecessary delays and more stress to the distraught families.

Doctors are often just as guilty as hospital executives of not taking HIPAA training and then giving HIPAA a bad rap. (I can imagine the medical practice managers and compliance officers silently nodding their heads.)

“HIPAA interferes with patient care” is something I hear often from doctors. When I ask how, I am told by the doctors that they can’t communicate with specialists, call for a consult, or talk to their patients’ families. These are ALL WRONG.

I ask those doctors two questions that are usually met with a silent stare:

  1. When was the last time you received HIPAA training?
  2. If you did get trained, did it take more than 5 minutes or was it just to get the requirement out of the way?

HIPAA allows doctors to share patient information with other doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, and Business Associates as long as it is for a patient’s Treatment, Payment, and for healthcare Operations (TPO.) This is communicated to patients through a Notice of Privacy Practices.

HIPAA allows doctors to use their judgment to determine what to say to friends and families of patients who are incapacitated or incompetent. The Orlando hospital could have communicated with family members and friends.

From Frequently Asked Questions at the HHS website:

Does the HIPAA Privacy Rule permit a hospital to inform callers or visitors of a patient’s location and general condition in the emergency room, even if the patient’s information would not normally be included in the main hospital directory of admitted patients?

Answer: Yes.

If a patient’s family member, friend, or other person involved in the patient’s care or payment for care calls a health care provider to ask about the patient’s condition, does HIPAA require the health care provider to obtain proof of who the person is before speaking with them?

Answer: No.  If the caller states that he or she is a family member or friend of the patient, or is involved in the patient’s care or payment for care, then HIPAA doesn’t require proof of identity in this case.  However, a health care provider may establish his or her own rules for verifying who is on the phone.  In addition, when someone other than a friend or family member is involved, the health care provider must be reasonably sure that the patient asked the person to be involved in his or her care or payment for care.

Can the fact that a patient has been “treated and released,” or that a patient has died, be released as part of the facility directory?

Answer: Yes.

Does the HIPAA Privacy Rule permit a doctor to discuss a patient’s health status, treatment, or payment arrangements with the patient’s family and friends?

Answer: Yes. The HIPAA Privacy Rule at 45 CFR 164.510(b) specifically permits covered entities to share information that is directly relevant to the involvement of a spouse, family members, friends, or other persons identified by a patient, in the patient’s care or payment for health care. If the patient is present, or is otherwise available prior to the disclosure, and has the capacity to make health care decisions, the covered entity may discuss this information with the family and these other persons if the patient agrees or, when given the opportunity, does not object. The covered entity may also share relevant information with the family and these other persons if it can reasonably infer, based on professional judgment, that the patient does not object. Under these circumstances, for example:

  • A doctor may give information about a patient’s mobility limitations to a friend driving the patient home from the hospital.
  • A hospital may discuss a patient’s payment options with her adult daughter.
  • A doctor may instruct a patient’s roommate about proper medicine dosage when she comes to pick up her friend from the hospital.
  • A physician may discuss a patient’s treatment with the patient in the presence of a friend when the patient brings the friend to a medical appointment and asks if the friend can come into the treatment room.

Even when the patient is not present or it is impracticable because of emergency circumstances or the patient’s incapacity for the covered entity to ask the patient about discussing her care or payment with a family member or other person, a covered entity may share this information with the person when, in exercising professional judgment, it determines that doing so would be in the best interest of the patient. See 45 CFR 164.510(b).

Thus, for example:

  • A surgeon may, if consistent with such professional judgment, inform a patient’s spouse, who accompanied her husband to the emergency room, that the patient has suffered a heart attack and provide periodic updates on the patient’s progress and prognosis.
  • A doctor may, if consistent with such professional judgment, discuss an incapacitated patient’s condition with a family member over the phone.
  • In addition, the Privacy Rule expressly permits a covered entity to use professional judgment and experience with common practice to make reasonable inferences about the patient’s best interests in allowing another person to act on behalf of the patient to pick up a filled prescription, medical supplies, X-rays, or other similar forms of protected health information. For example, when a person comes to a pharmacy requesting to pick up a prescription on behalf of an individual he identifies by name, a pharmacist, based on professional judgment and experience with common practice, may allow the person to do so.

Other examples of hospital executives’ lack of HIPAA knowledge include:

  • Shasta Regional Medical Center, where the CEO and Chief Medical Officer took a patient’s chart to the local newspaper and shared details of her treatment without her permission.
  • NY Presbyterian Hospital, which allowed the film crew from ABC’s ‘NY Med’ TV show to film dying and incapacitated patients.

To healthcare executives and doctors, many of your imagined challenges caused by HIPAA can be eliminated by learning more about the rules. You need to be prepared for the 3 a.m. phone call. And you don’t have to call the White House for help.

About Mike Semel
Mike Semel, President of Semel Consulting,  is a certified HIPAA expert with over 12 years’ HIPAA experience and 30 years in IT. He has been the CIO for a hospital and a K-12 school district; owned and managed IT companies; ran operations at an online backup provider; and is a recognized HIPAA expert and speaker. He can be reached at mike@semelconsulting.com or 888-997-3635 x 101.

Breach Affecting 2.2M Patients Highlights New Health Data Threats

Posted on April 4, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

A Fort Myers, FL-based cancer care organization is paying a massive price for a health data breach that exposed personal information on 2.2 million patients late last year. This incident is also shedding light on the growing vulnerability of non-hospital healthcare data, as you’ll see below.

Recently, 21st Century Oncology was forced to warn patients that an “unauthorized third party” had broken into one of its databases. Officials said that they had no evidence that medical records were accessed, but conceded that breached information may have included patient names Social Security numbers, insurance information and diagnosis and treatment data.

Notably, the cancer care chain — which operates on hundred and 45 centers in 17 states — didn’t learn about the breach until the FBI informed the company that it had happened.

Since that time, 21st Century has been faced with a broad range of legal consequences. Three lawsuits related to the breach have been filed against the company. All are alleging that the breach exposed them to a great possibility of harm.  Patient indignation seems to have been stoked, in part, because they did not learn about the breach until five months after it happened, allegedly at the request of investigating FBI officials.

“While more than 2.2 million 21st Century Oncology victims have sought out and/or pay for medical care from the company, thieves have been hard at work, stealing and using their hard-to-change Social Security numbers and highly sensitive medical information,” said plaintiff Rona Polovoy in her lawsuit.

Polovoy’s suit also contends that the company should have been better prepared for such breaches, given that it suffered a similar security lapse between October 2011 and August 2012, when an employee used patient names Social Security numbers and dates of birth to file fraudulent tax refund claims. She claims that the current lapse demonstrates that the company did little to clean up its cybersecurity act.

Another plaintiff, John Dickman, says that the breach has filled his life with needless anxiety. In his legal filings he says that he “now must engage in stringent monitoring of, among other things, his financial accounts, tax filings, and health insurance claims.”

All of this may be grimly entertaining if you aren’t the one whose data was exposed, but there’s more to this case than meets the eye. According to a cybersecurity specialist quoted in Infosecurity Magazine, the 21st Century network intrusion highlights how exposed healthcare organizations outside the hospital world are to data breaches.

I can’t help but agree with TrapX Security executive vice president Carl Wright, who told the magazine that skilled nursing facilities, dialysis centers, imaging centers, diagnostic labs, surgical centers and cancer treatment facilities like 21st are all in network intruders’ crosshairs. Not only that, he notes that large extended healthcare networks such as accountable care organizations are vulnerable.

And that’s a really scary thought. While he doesn’t say so specifically, it’s logical to assume that the more unrelated partners you weld together across disparate networks, it multiplies the number of security-related points of failure. Isn’t it lovely how security threats emerge to meet every advance in healthcare?

This Time, It’s Personal: Virus Hits My Local Hospital

Posted on March 30, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

In about two weeks, I am scheduled to have a cardiac ablation to address a long-standing arrhythmia. I was feeling pretty good about this — after all, the procedure is safe at my age and is known to have a very high success rate — until I scanned my Twitter feed yesterday.

It was then that I found out that what was probably a ransomware virus had forced a medical data shutdown at Washington, D.C.-based MedStar Health. And while the community hospital where my procedure will be done is not part of the MedStar network, the cardiac electrophysiologist who will perform the ablation is affiliated with the chain.

During my pre-procedure visit with the doctor, a very pleasant guy who made me feel very safe, we devolved to talking shop about EMR issues after the clinical discussion was over. At the time he shared that his practice ran on GE Centricity which, he understandably complained, was not interoperable with the Epic system at one community chain, MedStar’s enterprise system or even the imaging platforms he uses. Under those circumstances, it’s hard to imagine that my data was affected by this breach. But as you can imagine, I still wonder what’s up.

While there’s been no official public statement saying this virus was part of a ransomware attack, some form of virus has definitely wreaked havoc at MedStar, according to a report by the Washington Post. (As a side note, it’s worth pointing out that if this is a ransomware attack, health system officials have done an admirable job of keeping the amount demanded for data return out of the press. However, some users have commented about ransomware on their individual computers.)

As the news report notes, MedStar has soldiered on in the face of the attack, keeping all of its clinical facilities open. However, a hospital spokesperson told the newspaper that the chain has decided to take down all system interfaces to prevent the spread of the virus. And as has happened with other hospital ransomware incursions, staffers have had to revert to using paper-based records.

And here’s where it might affect me personally. Even though my procedure is being done at a non-MedStar hospital, it’s possible that the virus driven delay in appointments and surgeries will affect my doctor, which could of course affect me.

Meanwhile, imagine how the employees at MedStar facilities feel: “Even the lowest-level staff can’t communicate with anyone. You can’t schedule patients, you can’t access records, you can’t do anything,” an anonymous staffer told the Post. Even if such a breach had little impact on patients, it’s obviously bad for employee morale. And that can’t be good for me either.

Again, it’s possible I’m in the clear, but the fact that the FUD surrounding this episode affects even a trained observer like myself plays right into the virus makers’ hands. Now, so far I haven’t dignified the attack by calling the doctor’s office to ask how it will affect me, but if I keep reading about problems with MedStar systems I’ll have to follow up soon.

Worse, when I’m being anesthetized for the procedure next month, I know I’ll be wondering when the next virus will hit.

Cyber Breach Insurance May Be Useless If You’re Negligent

Posted on March 28, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Ideally, your healthcare organization will never see a major data breach. But realistically, given how valuable healthcare data is these days — and the extent to which many healthcare firms neglect data security — it’s safer to assume that you will have to cope with a breach at some point.

In fact, it might be wise to assume that some form of costly breach is inevitable. After all, as one infographic points out, 55 healthcare organizations reported network attacks resulting in data breaches last year, which resulted in 111,809,322 individuals’ health record information being compromised. (If you haven’t done the math in your head, that’s a staggering 35% of the US population.)

The capper: if things don’t get better, the US healthcare industry stands to lose $305 billion in cumulative lifetime patient revenue due to cyberattacks likely to take place over the next five years.

So, by all means, protect yourself by any means available. However, as a recent legal battle suggests, simply buying cyber security insurance isn’t a one-step solution. In fact, your policy may not be worth much if you don’t do your due diligence when it comes to network and Internet security.

The lawsuit, Columbia Casualty Company v. Cottage Health System, shows what happens when a healthcare organization (allegedly) relies on its cyber insurance policy to protect it against breach costs rather than working hard to prevent such slips.

Back in December 2013, the three-hospital Cottage Health System notified 32,755 of its patients that their PHI had been compromised. The breach occurred when the health system and one of its vendors, InSync, stored unencrypted medical records on an Internet accessible system.

It later came out that the breach was probably caused by careless FTP settings on both systems servers which permitted anonymous user access, essentially opening up access to patient health records to anyone who could use Google. (Wow. If true that’s really embarrassing. I doubt a sharp 13-year-old script kiddie would make that mistake.)

Anyway, a group of presumably ticked off patients filed a class action suit against Cottage asking for $4.125 million. At first, cyber breach insurer Columbia Casualty paid out the $4.125 million and settled the case. Now, however, the insurer is suing Cottage, asking the health system to pay it back for the money it paid out to the class action members. It argues that Cottage was negligent due to:

  • a failure to continuously implement the procedures and risk controls identified in the application, including, but not limited to, its failure to replace factory default settings and its failure to ensure that its information security systems were securely configured; and
  • a failure to regularly check and maintain security patches on its systems, its failure to regularly re-assess its information security exposure and enhance risk controls, its failure to have a system in place to detect unauthorized access or attempts to access sensitive information stored on its servers and its failure to control and track all changes to its network to ensure it remains secure.

Not only that, Columbia Casualty asserts, Cottage lied about following a minimum set of security practices known as a “Risk Control Self Assessment” required as part of the cyber insurance application.

Now, if the cyber insurer’s allegations are true, Cottage’s behavior may have been particularly egregious. And no one has proven anything yet, as the case is still in the early stages, but this dispute should still stand as a warning to all healthcare organizations. If you neglect security, then try to get an insurance company to cover your behind when breaches occur, you might be out of luck.