Unpatched and Unsupported Software Triggers Latest HIPAA Security Breach Resolution Agreement

Health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses (covered entities) and their business associates need to watch for and protect protected health information (PHI) against security exposures from unpatched or unsupported software and other weaknesses in their data security protections as part of their compliance obligations under the Security Rules of the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA).

The need to monitor and address data security threats associated with unpatched or unsupported software is demonstrated by the December 9, 2014 announcement by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) that Anchorage Community Mental Health Services (ACMHS) will pay $150,000 and adopt a corrective action plan to correct deficiencies in its HIPAA compliance program resulting from unpatched and unsupported software.

OCR opened an investigation against the five-facility, nonprofit provider of behavioral health care services to children, adults, and families in Anchorage, Alaska after receiving notification from ACMHS of a breach of unsecured electronic protected health information (ePHI) affecting 2,743 individuals due to malware compromising the security of its information technology resources.

According to the OCR announcement of the ACMHS Resolution Agreement with OCR, OCR’s investigation revealed that ACMHS had adopted sample Security Rule policies and procedures in 2005, but failed to follow these procedures. Moreover, OCR found that the reported security incident directly resulted of ACMHS failing to identify and address basic risks, such as not regularly updating their IT resources with available patches and running outdated, unsupported software.

“Successful HIPAA compliance requires a common sense approach to assessing and addressing the risks to ePHI on a regular basis,” said OCR Director Jocelyn Samuels. “This includes reviewing systems for unpatched vulnerabilities and unsupported software that can leave patient information susceptible to malware and other risks.”

In an effort to promote awareness of the need to assess and monitor the security of ePHI by covered entities and business associates, OCR continues to encourage covered entities and business associates to conduct regular documented evaluations of the adequacy of their ePHI safeguards and systems. To aid in this process, OCR and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology have created a Security Rule Risk Assessment Tool available here to assist organizations that handle PHI in conducting a regular review of the administrative, physical and technical safeguards they have in place to protect the security of the information. Since OCR points to the Tool as a resource, covered entities and business associates should anticipate that their failure to identify and address any deficiencies in the areas identified by the tools as a potentially serious compliance issue. As a result, covered entities and business associates likely will want to take steps to ensure that their records include documented review of the adequacy of the security safeguards identified in the Tool. At the same time, covered entities and their business associates should not assume that the Tool adequately covers all potential HIPAA Security Rule exposures. OCR has made clear in this and other Resolution Agreements that HIPAA’s Security Rule requires ongoing monitoring and assessment of the adequacy of security in response to changes in software or system, emerging threats and other developments.

For More Information Or Assistance

If you need assistance reviewing or responding to these or other health care related risk management, compliance, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, may be able to help. Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer has more than 26 years experience advising health industry clients about these and other matters. Her experience includes advising hospitals, nursing home, home health, rehabilitation and other health care providers and health industry clients to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; prevent, conduct and investigate, and respond to peer review and other quality concerns; and to respond to Board of Medicine, Department of Aging & Disability, Drug Enforcement Agency, OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, HHS, DOD and other health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns.  The scribe for the American Bar Association (ABA) Joint Committee on Employee Benefits annual agency meeting with the Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights,  Ms. Stamer has worked extensively with health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses, their business associates, employers, banks and other financial institutions, and others on risk management and compliance with HIPAA and other information privacy and data security rules, investigating and responding to known or suspected breaches, defending investigations or other actions by plaintiffs, OCR and other federal or state agencies, reporting known or suspected violations, business associate and other contracting, commenting or obtaining other clarification of guidance, training and enforcement, and a host of other related concerns.  Her clients include public and private health care providers, health insurers, health plans, technology and other vendors, and others.  In addition to representing and advising these organizations, she also has conducted training on Privacy & The Pandemic for the Association of State & Territorial Health Plans,  as well as  HIPAA, FACTA, PCI, medical confidentiality, insurance confidentiality and other privacy and data security compliance and risk management for  Los Angeles County Health Department, ISSA, HIMMS, the ABA, SHRM, schools, medical societies, government and private health care and health plan organizations, their business associates, trade associations and others.

A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns. Her insights on these and other related matters appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications.  You can get more information about her health industry experience here. If you need assistance responding to concerns about the matters discussed in this publication or other health care concerns, wish to obtain information about arranging for training or presentations by Ms. Stamer, wish to suggest a topic for a future program or update, or wish to request other information or materials, please contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns from Ms. Stamer, see here.

About Solutions Law Press

Solutions Law Press™ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, compensation, data security and privacy, health care, insurance, and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and other key operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press resources including:

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THE FOLLOWING DISCLAIMER IS INCLUDED TO COMPLY WITH AND IN RESPONSE TO U.S. TREASURY DEPARTMENT CIRCULAR 230 REGULATIONS.  ANY STATEMENTS CONTAINED HEREIN ARE NOT INTENDED OR WRITTEN BY THE WRITER TO BE USED, AND NOTHING CONTAINED HEREIN CAN BE USED BY YOU OR ANY OTHER PERSON, FOR THE PURPOSE OF (1) AVOIDING PENALTIES THAT MAY BE IMPOSED UNDER FEDERAL TAX LAW, OR (2) PROMOTING, MARKETING OR RECOMMENDING TO ANOTHER PARTY ANY TAX-RELATED TRANSACTION OR MATTER ADDRESSED HEREIN.

©2014 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C. Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.

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