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Is HIPAA Misuse Blocking Patient Use Of Their Data?

Posted on August 18, 2015 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.

Recently, a story in the New York Times told some troubling stories about how HIPAA misunderstandings have crept into both professional and personal settings. These included:

  • A woman getting scolded at a hospital in Boston for “very improper” speech after discussing her husband’s medical situation with a dear friend.
  • Refusal by a Pennsylvania hospital to take a daughter’s information on her mother’s medical history, citing HIPAA, despite the fact that the daughter wasn’t *requesting* any data. The woman’s mother was infirm and couldn’t share medical history — such as her drug allergy — on her own.
  • The announcement, by a minister in California, that he could no longer read the names of sick congregants due to HIPAA.

All of this is bad enough, particularly the case of the Pennsylvania refusing to take information that could have protected a helpless elderly patient, but the effects of this ignorance create even greater ripples, I’d argue.

Let’s face it: our efforts to convince patients to engage with their own medical data haven’t been terribly successful as of yet. According to a study released late last year by Xerox, 64% of patients were not using patient portals, and 31% said that their doctor had never discussed portals with them.

Some of the reasons patients aren’t taking advantage of the medical data available to them include ignorance and fear, I’d argue. Technophobia and a history of just “trusting the doctor” play a role as well. What’s more, pouring through lab results and imaging studies might seem overwhelming to patients who have never done it before.

But that’s not all that’s holding people back. In my opinion, the climate of medical data fear HIPAA misunderstandings have created is playing a major part too.

While I understand why patients have to sign acknowledgements of privacy practices and be taught what HIPAA is intended to do, this doesn’t exactly foster a climate in which patients feel like they own their data. While doctor’s offices and hospitals may not have done this deliberately, the way they administer HIPAA compliance can make medical data seem portentous, scary and dangerous, more like a bomb set to go off than a tool patients can use to manage their care.

I guess what I’m suggesting is that if providers want to see patients engaged and managing their care, they should make sure patients feel comfortable asking for access to and using that data. While some may never feel at ease digging into their test results or correcting their medical history, I believe that there’s a sizable group of patients who would respond well to a reminder that there’s power in doing so.

The truth is that while most providers now give patients the option of logging on to a portal, they typically don’t make it easy. And heaven knows even the best-trained physician office staff rarely take the time to urge patients to log on and learn.

But if providers make the effort to balance stern HIPAA paperwork with encouraging words, patients are more likely to get inspired. Sometimes, all it takes is a little nudge to get people on board with new behavior. And there’s no excuse for letting foolish misinterpretations of HIPAA prevent that from happening.

HHS Privacy and Security Rules Cheat Sheet Infographic

Posted on August 6, 2015 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.

Scrypt has put out the infographic below to help summarize the guide to Privacy and Security of Electronic Health Information that HHS put out. Of course, the full guide is 62 pages of detailed information, but this will give you a flavor for what’s in the guide.
HHS Privacy and Security Rule Infographic

Patient Data Breach at UCLA Hospital System Possibly Impacting 4.5 Million Patients

Posted on July 17, 2015 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.

The LA Times is reporting that UCLA Health System has had a data breach possibly affecting 4.5 million patients. It’s the usual story of a HIPAA breach of this size. They saw some abnormal activity on one of their systems that contained a large amount of patient records. They don’t have any evidence that such data was taken, but hackers are usually really good about not leaving a trail when they take records.

Here’s some comments from UCLA Health as quoted in the LA Times article linked above:

“We take this attack on our systems extremely seriously,” said Dr. James Atkinson, interim associate vice chancellor and president of the UCLA Hospital System.

In an interview, Atkinson said the hospital saw unusual activity in one of its computer servers in October. An investigation confirmed in May that the hackers had gained access to patient information.

“They are a highly sophisticated group likely to be offshore,” he said. “We really don’t know. It’s an ongoing investigation.”

I have yet to see a hospital say they don’t take a breach seriously. I’ve also never seen a hospital say that they were hacked by unsophisticated hackers that exploited their poor security (although, you can be sure that happens in every industry). Of course it had to be a sophisticated attack for them to breach their amazing security, right?

What’s not clear to me is why it took them so long to confirm they’d been hacked. The LA Times article says that they saw the unusual activity in October and it took until May to confirm that “the hackers had gained access to patient information.” Now we’re just getting the public notification in July? All of that seems long, but maybe the attack was just that sophisticated.

What’s scary for me is that these types of breaches have become so common place that I’m not surprised and it’s not shocking. In fact, they’ve almost become standard. Next up will be UCLA Health System setting up some type of credit protection service for their patients assuming there was some financial data there as well. I don’t think we should treat these breaches as normal. They should be a wake up call to everyone in the industry, but I’m sorry to say that it feels more like the norm than the exception.

Does Federal Health Data Warehouse Pose Privacy Risk?

Posted on June 23, 2015 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.

Not too long ago, few consumers were aware of the threat data thieves posed to their privacy, and far fewer had even an inkling of how vulnerable many large commercial databases would turn out to be.

But as consumer health data has gone digital — and average people have become more aware of the extent to which data breaches can affect their lives — they’ve grown more worried, and for good reason. As a series of spectacular data breaches within health plans has illustrated, both their medical and personal data might be at risk, with potentially devastating consequences if that data gets into the wrong hands.

Considering that these concerns are not only common, but pretty valid, federal authorities who have collected information on millions of HealthCare.gov insurance customers need to be sure that they’re above reproach. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

According to an Associated Press story, the administration is storing all of the HealthCare.gov data in a perpetual central repository known as MIDAS. MIDAS data includes a lot of sensitive information, including Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and financial accounts.  If stolen, this data could provide a springboard for countless case of identity or even medical identity theft, both of which have emerged as perhaps the iconic crimes of 21st century life.

Both the immensity of the database and a failure to plan for destruction of old records are raising the hackles of privacy advocates. They definitely aren’t comfortable with the ten-year storage period recommended by the National Archives.

An Obama Administration rep told the AP that MIDAS meets or exceeds federal security and privacy standards, by which I assume he largely meant HIPAA regs. But it’s reasonable to wonder how long the federal government can protect its massive data store, particularly if commercial entities like Anthem — who arguably have more to lose — can’t protect their beneficiaries’ data from break-ins. True, MIDAS is also operated by a private concern, government technology contractor CACI, but the workflow has to impacted by the fact that CMS owns the data.

Meanwhile, growing privacy breach questions are driven by reasonable concerns, especially those outlined by the GAO, which noted last year that MIDAS went live without an in-depth assessment of privacy risks posed by the system.

Another key point made by the AP report (which did a very good job on this topic, by the way, somewhat to my surprise) is that MIDAS’ mission has evolved from a facility for running analytics on the data to a central clearinghouse for data sharing between CMS and health insurance companies and state Medicaid organizations. And we all know that with mission creep can come feature creep; with feature creep comes greater and greater potential for security holes that are passed over and left to be found by intruders.

Now, private healthcare organizations will still be managing the bulk of consumer medical data for the near future. And they have many vulnerabilities that are left unpatched, as recent events have emphasized. But in the near term, it seems like a good idea to hold the federal government’s feet to the fire. The last thing we need is a giant loss of consumer confidence generated by a giant government data exposure.

Windows Server 2003 Support Ends July 14, 2015 – No Longer HIPAA Compliant

Posted on June 16, 2015 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.

If this post feels like groundhog day, then you are probably remembering our previous post about Windows XP being retired and therefore no longer HIPAA compliant and our follow up article about a case where “unpatched and unsupported software” was penalized by OCR as a HIPAA violation.

With those posts as background, the same thing applies to Microsoft ending support for Windows Server 2003 on July 14, 2015. Many of you are probably wondering why I’m talking about a 2003 software that’s being sunset. Could people really still be using this software in healthcare? The simple answer is that yes they are still using Windows Server 2003.

Mike Semel has a really great post about how to deal with the change to ensure you avoid any breaches or HIPAA penalties. In his post he highlights how replacing Windows Server 2003 is a much larger change than it was to replace Windows XP.

In the later case, you were disrupting one user. In the former case, you’re likely disrupting a whole group of users. Plus, the process of moving a server to a new server and operating system is much harder than moving a desktop user to a new desktop. In fact, in most cases the only reason organizations hadn’t moved off Windows XP was because of budget. My guess is that many that are still on Windows Server 2003 are still on it because the migration path to a newer server is hard or even impossible. This is why you better start planning now to move off Windows Server 2003.

I also love this section of Mike Semel’s post linked above which talks about the costs of a breach (which is likely to happen if you continue using unsupported and unpatched software):

The 2015 IBM Cost of a Data Breach Report was just released and the Ponemon Institute determined that a data breach of healthcare records averages $ 398 per record. You are thinking that it would never cost that much to notify patients, hire attorneys, and plug the holes in your network. You’re right. The report goes on to say that almost ¾ of the cost of a breach is in loss of business and other consequences of the breach. If you are a non-profit that means fewer donations. If you are a doctor or a hospital it could mean your patients lose trust and go somewhere else.

I’m sure that some will come on here like they did on the Windows XP post and suggest that you can keep using Windows Server 2003 in a HIPAA compliant manner. This penalty tells me otherwise. I believe it’s a very risky proposition to continue using unsupported and unpatched software. Might there be some edge case where a specific software requires you to use Windows Server 2003 and you could set up some mix of private network/firewalls/access lists and other security to mitigate the risk of a breach of the unsupported software. In theory, that’s possible, but it’s unlikely most of you reading this are in that position. So, you better get to work updating from Windows Server 2003.

Phase 2 HIPAA Audits Kick Off With Random Surveys

Posted on June 9, 2015 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, the only reason you would know about the following is due to scribes such as myself — but for the record, the HHS Office for Civil Rights has sent out a bunch of pre-audit screening surveys to covered entities. Once it gets responses, it will do a Phase 2 audit not only of covered entities but also business associates, so things should get heated.

While these take the form of Meaningful Use audits, covering incentives paid from January 1, 2011 through June 30, 2014, it’s really more about checking how well you protect ePHI.

This effort is a drive to be sure that providers and BAs are complying with the HIPAA privacy, security and breach notification requirements. Apparently OCR found, during Phase 1 pilot audits in 2011 and 2012, that there was “pervasive non-compliance” with regs designed to safeguard protected health information, the National Law Review reports.

However, these audits aren’t targeting the “bad guys.” Selection for the audits is random, according to HHS Office of the Inspector General.

So if you get one of the dreaded pre-screening letters, how should you respond? According a thoughtful blog post by Maryanne Lambert for CureMD, auditors will be focused on the following areas:

  • Risk Assessment audits and reports
  • EHR security plan
  • Organizational chart
  • Network diagram
  • EHR web sites and patient portals
  • Policies and procedures
  • System inventory
  • Tools to perform vulnerability scans
  • Central log and event reports
  • EHR system users list
  • Contractors supporting the EHR and network perimeter devices.

According to Lambert, the feds will want to talk to the person primarily responsible for each of these areas, a process which could quickly devolve into a disaster if those people aren’t prepared. She recommends that if you’re selected for an audit, you run through a mock audit ahead of time to make sure these staff members can answer questions about how well policies and processed are followed.

Not that anyone would take the presence of HHS on their premises lightly, but it’s worth bearing in mind that a stumble in one corner of your operation could have widespread consequences. Lambert notes that in addition to defending your security precautions, you have to make sure that all parts of your organization are in line:

Be mindful while planning for this audit as deficiencies identified for one physician in a physician group or one hospital within a multi-hospital system, may apply to the other physicians and hospitals using the same EHR system and/or implementing meaningful use in the same way.  Thus, the incentive payments at risk in this audit may be greater than the payments to the particular provider being audited.

But as she points out, there is one possible benefit to being audited. If you prepare well, it might save you not only trouble with HHS but possibly lawsuits for breaches of information. Hey, everything has some kind of silver lining, right?

NueMD’s Startling HIPAA Compliance Survey Results

Posted on December 12, 2014 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.

In a recent HIPAA compliance survey of 1,000 medical practices and 150 medical billing companies, NueMD found some really startling results about medical practices’ understanding and compliance with HIPAA. You can see their research methodology here and the full HIPAA Compliance survey results.

This is the most in depth HIPAA survey I’ve ever seen. NueMD and their partners Porter Research and The Daniel Brown Law Group did an amazing job putting together this survey and asking some very important questions. The full results take a while to consume, but here’s some summary findings from the survey:

  • Only 32 percent of medical practices knew the HIPAA audits were taking place
  • 35 percent of respondents said their business had conducted a HIPAA risk analysis
  • 34 percent of owners, managers, and administrators reported they were “very confident” their electronic devices containing PHI were HIPAA compliant
  • 24 percent of owners, managers, and administrators at medical practices reported they’ve evaluated all of their Business Associate Agreements
  • 56 percent of office staff and non-owner care providers at practices said they have received HIPAA training within the last year

The most shocking number for me is that only 35% of respondents had conducted a HIPAA risk analysis. That means that 65% of practices are in violation of HIPAA. Yes, a HIPAA risk analysis isn’t just a requirement for meaningful use, but was and always has been a part of HIPAA as well. Putting the HIPAA risk assessment in meaningful use was just a way for HHS to try and get more medical practices to comply with HIPAA. I can’t imagine what the above number would have been before meaningful use.

These numbers explain why our post yesterday about HIPAA penalties for unpatched and unsupported software is likely just a preview of coming attractions. I wonder how many more penalties it will take for practices to finally start taking the HIPAA risk assessment seriously.

Thanks NueMD for doing this HIPAA survey. I’m sure I’ll be digging through your full survey results as part of future posts. You’ve created a real treasure trove of HIPAA compliance data.

Firewall & Windows XP HIPAA Penalties

Posted on December 11, 2014 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.

Anchorage Community Mental Health Services, Inc, has just been assessed a $150,000 penalty for a HIPAA data breach. The title of the OCR bulletin for the HIPAA settlement is telling: “HIPAA Settlement Underscores the Vulnerability of Unpatched and Unsupported Software.” It seems that OCR wanted to communicate clearly that unpatched and unsupported software is a HIPAA violation.

If you’re a regular reader of EMR and HIPAA, then you might remember that we warned you that continued use of Windows XP would be a HIPAA violation since Windows stopped providing updates to it on April 8, 2014. Thankfully, it was one of our most read posts with ~35,000 people viewing it. However, I’m sure many others missed the post or didn’t listen. The above example is proof that using unsupported software will result in a HIPAA violation.

Mike Semel has a great post up about this ruling and he also points out that Microsoft Office 2003 and Microsft Exchange Server 2003 should also be on the list of unsupported software alongside Windows XP. He also noted that Windows Server 2003 will stop being supported on July 14, 2015.

Along with unsuppported and unpatched software, Mike Semel offers some great advice for Firewalls and HIPAA:

A firewall connects your network to the Internet and has features to prevent threats such as unauthorized network intrusions (hacking) and malware from breaching patient information. When you subscribe to an Internet service they often will provide a router to connect you to their service. These devices typically are not firewalls and do not have the security features and update subscriptions necessary to protect your network from sophisticated and ever-changing threats.

You won’t find the word ‘firewall’ anywhere in HIPAA, but the $ 150,000 Anchorage Community Mental Health Services HIPAA penalty and a $ 400,000 penalty at Idaho State University have referred to the lack of network firewall protection.

Anyone who has to protect health information should replace their routers with business-class firewalls that offer intrusion prevention and other security features. It is also wise to work with an IT vendor who can monitor your firewalls to ensure they continue to protect you against expensive and embarrassing data breaches.

Be sure to read Mike Semel’s full article for other great insights on this settlement and what it means.

As Mike aptly points out, many organizations don’t want to incur the cost of updating Windows XP or implementing a firewall. It turns out, it’s much cheaper to do these upgrades than to pay the HIPAA fines for non-compliance. Let alone the hit to your reputation.

What Do We Know About Minimum Necessary Coming to HIPAA?

Posted on November 14, 2014 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.

We recently sat down with Alisha R. Smith, RHIA, HIM Compliance Educator at Healthport, to talk about HIPAA Omnibus and one of the components that was left out of the HIPAA Omnibus final rule: minimum necessary. In the video below, Alisha talks about what your company can do to prepare for minimum necessary and what minimum necessary might require if it gets included in future HIPAA requirements.

What do you think about Alisha’s recommendations? Do you think that legislation will be passed to include minimum necessary as part of HIPAA?

Unfinished Business: More HIPAA Guidelines to Come

Posted on August 4, 2014 I Written By

The following is a guest blog post by Rita Bowen, Sr. Vice President of HIM and Privacy Officer at HealthPort.

After all of the hullabaloo since the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) release of the HIPAA Omnibus, it’s humbling to realize that the work is not complete. While the Omnibus covered a lot of territory in providing new guidelines for the privacy and security of electronic health records, the Final Rule failed to address three key pieces of legislation that are of great relevance to healthcare providers.

The three areas include the “minimum necessary” standard; whistleblower compensation; and revised parameters for electronic health information (EHI) access logs. No specific timetable has been provided for the release of revised legislation.

Minimum Necessary

The minimum necessary standard requires providers to “take reasonable steps to limit the use or disclosure of, and requests for, protected health information to the minimum necessary to accomplish the intended purpose.”

This requires that the intent of the request and the review of the health information be matched to assure that only the minimum information intended for the authorized release be provided. To date, HHS has conducted a variety of evaluations and is in the process of assessing that data.

Whistleblower Compensation

The second bit of unfinished legislation is a proposed rule being considered by HHS that would dramatically increase the payment to Medicare fraud whistleblowers. If adopted, the program, called the Medicare Incentive Reward Program (IRP), will raise payments from a current maximum of $1,000 to nearly $10 million.

I believe that the added incentive will create heightened sensitivity to fraud and that more individuals will be motivated to act. People are cognizant of fraudulent situations but they have lacked the incentive to report, unless they are deeply disgruntled.

Per the proposed plan, reports of fraud can be made by simply making a phone call to the correct reporting agency which should facilitate whistleblowing.

Access Logs

The third, and most contentious, area of concern is with EHI access logs. The proposed legislation calls for a single log to be created and provided to the patient, that would contain all instances of access to the patient’s EHI, no matter the system or situation.

From a patient perspective, the log would be unwieldy, cumbersome and extremely difficult to decipher for the patient’s needs. An even more worrisome aspect is that of the privacy of healthcare workers.

Employees sense that their own privacy would be invaded if regulations require that their information, including their names and other personal identifiers, are shared as part of the accessed record.  Many healthcare workers have raised concern regarding their own safety if this information is openly made available. This topic has received a tremendous amount of attention.

In discussion are alternate plans that would negotiate the content of access logs, tailoring them to contain appropriate data regarding the person in question by the patient while still satisfying patients and protecting the privacy of providers.

The Value of Data Governance

Most of my conversations circle back to the value of information (or data) governance. This situation of unfinished EHI design and management is no different. Once released the new legislation for the “minimum necessary” standard, whistleblower compensation and revised parameters for medical access logs must be woven into your existing information governance plan.

Information governance is authority and control—the planning, monitoring and enforcement—of your data assets, which could be compromised if all of the dots are not connected. Organizations should be using this time to build the appropriate foundation to their EHI.

About the Author:
Rita Bowen, MA, RHIA, CHPS, SSGB

Ms. Bowen is a distinguished professional with 20+ years of experience in the health information management industry.  She serves as the Sr. Vice President of HIM and Privacy Officer of HealthPort where she is responsible for acting as an internal customer advocate.  Most recently, Ms. Bowen served as the Enterprise Director of HIM Services for Erlanger Health System for 13 years, where she received commendation from the hospital county authority for outstanding leadership.  Ms. Bowen is the recipient of Mentor FORE Triumph Award and Distinguished Member of AHIMA’s Quality Management Section.  She has served as the AHIMA President and Board Chair in 2010, a member of AHIMA’s Board of Directors (2006-2011), the Council on Certification (2003-2005) and various task groups including CHP exam and AHIMA’s liaison to HIMSS for the CHS exam construction (2002).

Ms. Bowen is an established speaker on diverse HIM topics and an active author on privacy and legal health records.  She served on the CCHIT security and reliability workgroup and as Chair of Regional Committees East-Tennessee HIMSS and co-chair of Tennessee’s e-HIM group.  She is an adjunct faculty member of the Chattanooga State HIM program and UT Memphis HIM Master’s program.  She also serves on the advisory board for Care Communications based in Chicago, Illinois.