The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) entered into settlements totaling $4.8 million with New York-Presbyterian Hospital (NYP) and Columbia University Medical Center (CU) for failing to implement appropriate administrative and technical safeguards to secure the ePHI of approximately 6,800 patients[i]. This is HHS’ highest financial sanction issued to date as a part of breach settlement agreements, confirming its commitment to enforce HIPAA compliance.
Breach Report, Investigation and Findings
NYP and CU received a complaint from an individual who found confidential health information (ePHI) including status, vital signs, medications, and laboratory results of a deceased relative, a former NYP patient, on the Internet. The HIPAA regulations require such ePHI be maintained in secure systems and kept confidential. In accordance with HIPAA requirements, they submitted a joint report of the complaint to HHS dated September 27, 2010 resulting in an investigation by HHS’ Office of Civil Rights (OCR).
OCR’s investigation found that NYP and CU have a joint healthcare services arrangement wherein CU faculty members work as attending physicians at NYP. To support the services, NYP and CU operate a shared data network including firewalls administered by employees of both entities with shared links to NYP patient information systems.
OCR identified the breach to have occurred when a CU physician employed to develop applications for both entities attempted to de-activate a networked server containing NYP patient ePHI. Due to a lack of technical safeguards in place on the network, the de-activation attempt resulted in NYP ePHI becoming accessible to internet search engines.
OCR found that neither NYP nor CU could demonstrate that its servers were secure or contained software protections prior to the breach. OCR found an additional lack of administrative safeguards, specifically that neither entity had conducted a risk analysis to identify all systems with access to NYP’s ePHI or had a risk management plan in place to address potential hazards or threats to the security of its ePHI.
Finally, OCR found that NYP failed to implement its own technical safeguards including procedures for authorizing access to its databases and information access management processes. In addition to the financial sanctions, NYP and CU agreed to a corrective action plan requiring implementation of the administrative and technical safeguards and to monitor compliance with regular reports back to HHS.
Increased HHS Enforcement of HIPAA Compliance
This action gives notice to Covered Entities and Business Associates that HHS has heightened its enforcement efforts since the enactment of HITECH and the HIPAA Omnibus Rule.
It is imperative that a healthcare organization ensure that its workforce understands the privacy and security regulations, not just completes rote training programs, and recognizes the impact that non-compliance - from even one employee - can have on an organization.
The mandated HIPAA safeguards must be in place to identify risks and threats to ePHI and patient information systems, including insider threats from its own workforce. The safeguards must be regularly monitored through risk analysis as a part of a comprehensive risk management program.
[i] See http://www.hhs.gov/news/press/2014pres/05/20140507b.html