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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?

Owensboro Health Muhlenberg Community Hospital Breach

Posted on November 17, 2015 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the 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 and 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 this week in HIPAA Breach rubber-necking, we have the FBI discovering suspicious network activity from third parties at Owensboro Health Muhlenberg Community Hospital, a 135 bed acute care hospital in Kentucky. Here’s a description of the incident:

On September 16, 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) notified the hospital of suspicious network activity involving third parties. Upon learning this information, the hospital took immediate action, including initiating an internal investigation and engaging a leading digital forensics and security firm to investigate this matter. Based upon this review, the hospital confirmed that a limited number of computers were infected with a keystroke logger designed to capture and transmit data as it was entered onto the affected computers. The infection may have started as early as January 2012.

I’m quite interested in how they came up with the January 2012 date. Was that the date that the infected computers were installed? Are they just being cautious and assuming that the computers could have had the keylogger since the beginning and they’re handling the breach that way?

Of course, Muhlenberg Community Hospital is sending breach notifications to all patients in their records database, employees and contractors and providers that were credentialed at the hospital since 2012. They don’t give a number of how many records or people this constitutes, but it have to be a massive number.

Here’s a look at what information they think could have been accessed by the keylogger:

The affected computers were used to enter patient financial data and health information, information about persons responsible for a patient’s bill and employee/contractor data, including potentially name, address, telephone number(s), birthdate, Social Security number, driver’s license/state identification number, medical and health plan information (such health insurance number, medical record number, diagnoses and treatment information, and payment information), financial account number, payment card information (such as primary account number and expiration date) and employment-related information. Additionally, some credentialing-related information for providers may be impacted. The hospital also believes that the malware could have captured username and password information for accounts or websites that were accessed by employees, contractors or providers using the affected terminals. The hospital has no indication that the data has been used inappropriately.

They’re offering the usual identity protection services to all those affected. However, I was quite interested in their expanded list of steps people can take to guard against possible identity theft and fraud:

  • Enroll in Identity Protection Services
  • Explanation of Benefits Review
  • Check Credit Reports
  • Review Payment Card Statements
  • Change Your Passwords
  • Consult the Identity Theft Protection Guide

It’s clear that the number of breaches is accelerating. However, this case is particularly interesting because it could have been breached for the past 3 years and they’re just now finding it out. I expect we’ll see a lot more of this activity in the future.