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?