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MD Anderson Fined $4.3 Million For HIPAA Violations

Posted on June 21, 2018 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.

An administrative law judge has ruled that MD Anderson Cancer Center must pay $4.3 million to the HHS Office of Civil Rights due to multiple HIPAA violations. This is the fourth largest penalty ever awarded to OCR.

OCR kicked off an investigation of MD Anderson in the wake of three separate data breach reports in 2012 and 2013. One of the breaches sprung from the theft of an unencrypted laptop from the home of an MD Anderson employee. The other two involved the loss of unencrypted USB thumb drives which held protected health information on over 33,500 patients.

Maybe — just maybe — MD Anderson could’ve gotten away with this or paid a much smaller fine. But given the circumstances, it was not going to get away that easily.

OCR found that while the organization had written encryption policies going back to 2006, it wasn’t following them that closely. What’s more, MD Anderson’s own risk analyses had found that a lack of device-level encryption could threaten the security of ePHI.

Adding insult to injury, MD Anderson didn’t begin to adopt enterprise-wide security technology until 2011. Also, it didn’t take action to encrypt data on its devices containing ePHI during the period between March 2011 and January 2013.

In defending itself, the organization argued that it was not obligated to encrypt data on its devices. It also claimed that the ePHI which was breached was for research, which meant that it was not subject to HIPAA penalties. In addition, its attorneys argued that the penalties accrued to OCR were unreasonable.

The administrative law judge wasn’t buying it. In fact, the judge took an axe to its arguments, saying that MD Anderson’s “dilatory conduct is shocking given the high risk to its patients resulting from the unauthorized disclosure of ePHI,” noting that its leaders “not only recognized, but [also] restated many times.” That’s strong language, the like of which I’ve never seen in HIPAA cases before.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the administrative law judge agreed to OCR’s sanctions, which included penalties for each day of MD Anderson’s lack of HIPAA compliance and for each record of individuals breached.

All I can say is wow. Could the Cancer Center’s leaders possibly have more chutzpah? It’s bad enough to have patient data breached three times. Defending yourself by essentially saying it was no big deal is even worse. If I were the judge I would’ve thrown the book at them too.

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.