Official Breach Tally Hits 119

20 Cases, Including 2 Large Incidents, Added in Past Month
Official Breach Tally Hits 119
As of July 22, five months after it was first posted, the official federal list of major healthcare information breaches dating back to last September included 119 incidents affecting almost 5 million Americans. About 20 incidents were added to the list in the last 30 days.

The total of those affected by major breaches grew by approximately 1.5 million in the past month, primarily as a result of two large cases.

In one case, South Shore Hospital in South Weymouth, Mass. reported that unencrypted backup computer files containing personal, health and financial information on about 800,000 people may have been lost by a company that a Massachusetts Hospital hired to destroy the files. On the breach list, the business partner involved is identified as Archive Data Solutions, formerly known as Iron Mountain Data Products Inc.

In the other case, WellPoint Inc., which owns Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans in 14 states, announced in late June that it was notifying 470,000 people who applied for individual health insurance coverage that their information may have been breached on a website.

HITECH Requirements

Under the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act's breach notification rule, which went into effect last September, breaches affecting more than 500 individuals must be reported to the Department of Health and Human Services' Office for Civil Rights and the news media as well as the individuals affected within 60 days.

The OCR's list contained 36 incidents when it was launched on Feb. 22.

As reported in a recent blog, OCR made several improvements in its breach list this month, including identifying private practices by name and displaying breach information in a new, searchable format. But to view the dates when each incident was added to the list requires downloading a separate spreadsheet or calling up an individual item.

Loss, Theft of Devices

About 58 percent of the incidents reported involve the theft or loss of computer devices, such as laptops, USB flash drives, CDs or hard drives.

Terrell Herzig, information security officer at UAB Medicine, Birmingham, Ala., suggests that healthcare organizations need to do much more to protect mobile devices and media. In a recent blog, he offered a list of 10 action items, including such steps as developing a comprehensive set of policies for portable media and devices and providing extensive staff education.

Under the HITECH breach notification rule, organizations that encrypt data in a specific way do not have to report breaches of that information.

In addition, a recently unveiled final rule setting standards for electronic health records that qualify for the new Medicare and Medicaid incentive program requires that the applications have encryption capability. But a companion rule defining how hospitals must "meaningfully use" EHRs to qualify for incentives does not specifically require the use of encryption.

Business Associates

So far, 24 of the major breach incidents reported have involved business associates -- vendors that have contracts with healthcare organizations and gain access to protected health information.

A recently announced proposal to modify the HIPAA privacy, security and enforcement rules makes it clear that business associates and their subcontractors must comply with the rules.

"There have been so many breaches that have been the result of a lack of security controls within business associates and their subcontractors that HHS wanted to make sure they made it very clear that these organizations were responsible for HIPAA compliance," says security expert Rebecca Herold, owner of Rebecca Herold & Associates.

"The proposal makes it much clearer that the covered entities' responsibilities must go far beyond just having a business associate agreement," Herold stresses. Instead, hospitals, clinics and others must work closely with their business partners to make sure they're carefully following the HIPAA privacy and security rules, she adds.

In a recent interview, security expert Tom Walsh, president of Tom Walsh Consulting, advised business associates to take a much closer look at all their security safeguards in light of the reported breaches and the need to comply with HIPAA.

Biggest Incidents

In addition to the South Shore Hospital and WellPoint incidents, the largest breaches reported so far include:

  • Avmed Health Plan alerted more than 1.2 million about a breach related to the theft of a laptop;
  • BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee informed nearly 1 million individuals about a breach stemming from the theft of 57 hard drives from a closed call center;
  • Affinity Health Plan notified more than 400,000 about a breach related to returning leased copy machines that contained hard drives with patient information stored on them;
  • Emergency Healthcare Physicians Ltd. in suburban Chicago alerted more than 180,000 to a breach involving the theft of a portable hard drive at a billing service.

About the Author

Howard Anderson

Howard Anderson

News Editor, ISMG

Anderson is news editor of Information Security Media Group and was founding editor of HealthcareInfoSecurity and DataBreachToday. He has more than 40 years of journalism experience, with a focus on healthcare information technology issues. Before launching HealthcareInfoSecurity, he served as founding editor of Health Data Management magazine, where he worked for 17 years, and he served in leadership roles at several other healthcare magazines and newspapers.




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