California agency to investigate HealthNet

As we predicted yesterday, HealthNet's breach of personal information of almost 2 million people, is already the subject of a state government agency's investigation.  Via Health Leaders Media:

After Health Net, Inc. in California announced Monday that several data servers containing sensitive health and personal information on its enrollees are unaccounted for, state officials said the security breach involves 'personal information for 1.9 million current and past enrollees nationwide.'

The California Department of Managed Health Care, the only stand-alone HMO watchdog agency in the nation, also provided further details beyond the plan's statement, saying that the missing records on nine servers are 'for more than 622,000 enrollees in Health Net products regulated by the DMHC, more than 223,000 enrolled in the California Department of Insurance products (another state agency that has oversight responsibility) and a number enrolled in Medicare.'

'The DMHC has opened an investigation into Health Net's security practices," said DMHC spokesperson Lynne Randolph. "Health Net has agreed to provide two years of free credit monitoring services to its California enrollees, in addition to identity theft insurance, fraud resolution and restoration of credit files, if needed.'

This may not be the last government investigation for the embattled insurer. For more information on the breach, please click here.

 

HealthNet breach affects 1.9 million individuals

HealthNet, a California-based insurer, suffered another major data breach last month. Modern Healthcare reports that HealthNet lost data of almost two million employees, members and healthcare providers, including their medical information, Social Security numbers and other sensitive information. The loss was reportedly caused by a missing server drive from HealthNet's Rancho Cordova, CA data center.  According to the insurance company's press release, HealthNet's IT vendor, IBM, notified HealthNet that it could not locate the drives.

As we noted previously, HealthNet suffered another major data breach in 2009, when the company lost a portable hard drive containing sensitive and protected information on 1.5 million people.  As a result of that breach, HealthNet was sued by then-Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, in a first such action under HIPAA, as modified by the HITECH Act.  HealthNet and Connecticut settled this suit in 2010 for $250,000 fine, a $500,000 contingency fund and a corrective action plan aimed at enhancing the security of the data in HealthNet's possession.

In light of HHS stepping up enforcement of HIPAA and HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules, HealthNet will become a likely target of both federal and state investigations; and if such investigations reveal negligence or failure to implement or comply with their own corrective action plan referenced above, the fines could be much more severe than the $250,000 number from the Connecticut settlement in 2010.

This should also serve as a reminder about the importance of requiring IT vendors to indemnify healthcare providers against such losses. If HealthNet's investigation concludes that IBM and/or its personnel were responsible for this loss, the parties will likely look to their existing contracts and BAA to determine whether IBM will reimburse HealthNet for its costs in relation to this breach.

 Via Modern Healthcare:

Woodland Hills, Calif.-based health insurer Health Net announced Monday that it had lost servers containing personal health information and demographic data for nearly 2 million current and past patients.

The breach, which affects approximately 1.9 million people nationwide, occurred in February. Health Net said it cannot account for server drives missing from a data center in Rancho Cordova, Calif. Those drives contain patients' names, Social Security numbers and sensitive health information. It's not the first time Health Net enrollees have experienced a breach. In 2009, 1.5 million people were affected when a portable hard drive containing patient data went missing.

According to the California Department of Managed Health Care, the breach will affect as many as 845,000 of the state's residents. In a news release, Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen urged the insurer to provide adequate identity protections for the 25,000 state residents whose data has been compromised.

"Health insurance companies have access to very sensitive and personal information," Jepsen said in the release. “They have a duty to protect that information from unlawful disclosure.”

[In a press release,] Health Net said it would offer two years of credit monitoring and identity protection to affected customers. The insurer also has set up a hotline.

 

HealthNet and Connecticut settle breach suit

In November of 2009, health insurance provider HealthNet reported a loss of a portable disk drive (which occurred six months prior to HealthNet's report). The disk drive contained compressed, though not encrypted, data, including social security and bank account information, on nearly half a million persons.  This loss outraged the Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, eventually leading Connecticut to file suit against the insurer for HIPAA violations and noncompliance with HealthNet's own security policies by failing to encrypt the sensitive data.

However, on July 6, 2010, Blumenthal (who is currently running to replace Chris Dodd (D-CT) in the U.S. Senate) announced that Connecticut has reached a settlement with HealthNet and its parent companies over this breach.  According to Blumenthal, this is the very first time a state Attorney General reached such a settlement for a HIPAA violation. The settlement included:

  • $250,000 fine to be paid to Connecticut;
  • $500,000 contingency fund, to be paid to the state in the event it is determined that someone accessed the protected data on the lost disks; and
  • a "corrective action plan" which is aimed to enhance security of protected data in possession of HealthNet and its parent companies.

It is important to keep in mind that the penalties could have been even higher. Yet regardless of the amount of the fine, this breach cost much more to HealthNet than $250,000.  The costs associated with investigations, breach notification, and possible legal fees almost certainly cost the organization more than the amount of the fine imposed by Connecticut.  Thus, HealthNet's example should serve as a great reminder about the importance of doing everything possible to avoid a breach, and knowing how to handle a breach effectively if one does occur.

"Blumenthal wins $250,000 in Health Net settlement," TheDay.com (July 6, 2010).

Rising numbers and costs of data breaches

There is little doubt that the healthcare industry must prepare for a growing number of - and expanding costs associated with - data breaches, particularly for breaches of protected health information.  Here are just a few notable reports on this subject:

  • Infosecurity.com reported on a striking increase in attempts to hack into healthcare organizations, while the rate of hacking in other economic sectors remained flat:  "the last quarter of [2009] saw an average of 13 400 attempts to hack healthcare organizations, compared to an average of 6,500 in the first nine months."  According to researchers at SecureWorks, which produced the graph above, healthcare organizations are particularly vulnerable to such attacks because they "have to provide access to many external networks and web applications so as to stay connected with their patients, employees, insurers and business partners. This increases their risk to cyber attacks."
  • Cnet News reported on similar findings by the Ponemon Institute, whose survey concluded that "Data breaches at U.S. companies attributed to malicious attacks and botnets doubled from 2008 to 2009 and cost substantially more than breaches caused by human negligence or system glitches."  The cost per compromised record involving a criminal act averaged $215, about 40% higher than breaches from negligence and 30% higher than those from glitches, the Ponemon survey found.

 

There are also a couple of examples of individual healthcare organizations suffering from increasing costs associated with data breaches:
 

  • According to Chattanooga Times Free Press (via iHealthBeat), BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee announced that it has spent more than $7 million to respond to a security breach resulting from 57 hard drives having been stolen from its training facility, which may have compromised personal and health data of up to 500,000 members.  $7 million tab does not appear to be the end of it:

The insurer has notified 220,000 BlueCross members about the data theft. The company also is offering no-cost credit-monitoring services for affected members. In addition, BlueCross is working to notify attorneys general in 32 states about the breach [pursuant to the HITECH Act].   <...>

BlueCross officials said 20,500 members already have signed up for the no-cost credit-monitoring services. In addition, the company has hired more than 700 contract and BlueCross employees to help determine what data the hard drives contained. The insurer said it might need to spend significantly more money to evaluate the missing data and provide additional identity protection services.

  • Considering the experience of BCBS of Tennessee, the costs associated with HealthNet's infamous data breach must be even higher. On top of providing two years of free credit-monitoring for hundreds of thousands of affected members, HealthNet is being sued by the state of Connecticut for HIPAA violations and noncompliance with HealthNet's own security policies by failing to encrypt the sensitive data.  The missing hard drive contained "27.7 million scanned pages of more than 120 different types of documents, including insurance claim forms, membership forms, appeals and grievances, correspondence and medical records."  Further complicating HealthNet's situation is the fact that the company waited for six months to inform the affected customers of the possible breach.

"Healthcare hacks on the rise," Inforsecurity.com (January 26, 2010).

"Survey: Data breaches from malicious attacks doubled last year," cnet News (January 25, 2010).

"Tab for Response to Data Breach Hits $7 Million for BCBS of Tennessee," IHealthBeat (January 26, 2010).

"AG files suit in health data privacy breach," theday.com (January 13, 2010).