Heritage Valley Padlock

HIPAA Enforcement Follows Ransomware

Healthcare providers hit with ransomware (who ignored the HIPAA Security Rule) can pay dearly if they are investigated. Don’t expect sympathy from regulators if you fail to protect patient data in your care.

Yesterday, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced a settlement with Heritage Valley Health System (Heritage Valley), which provides care in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Heritage Valley will pay $950,000 to settle and be subject to a three-year corrective action plan.

The investigation began after a breach caused by a ransomware attack. In its announcement, OCR emphasized the importance of following the Security Rule to prevent ransomware and hacking, the primary cyber threats in health care. Since 2018, there has been a 264% increase in large breaches reported to OCR involving ransomware attacks.

OCR Director Melanie Fontes Rainer said:

“Hacking and ransomware are the most common type of cyberattacks within the healthcare sector. Failure to implement the HIPAA Security Rule requirements leaves healthcare entities vulnerable and makes them attractive targets to cyber criminals. Safeguarding patient protected health information protects privacy and ensures continuity of care, which is our top priority. We remind and urge health care entities to protect their records systems and patients from cyberattacks.”

OCR Explains the Gaps in Heritage Valley HIPAA Compliance

According to OCR, Heritage Valley committed multiple potential violations of the HIPAA Security Rule, including failures to:

  • conduct a compliant risk analysis to determine the potential risks and vulnerabilities to electronic protected health information in its systems;
  • implement a contingency plan to respond to emergencies, like a ransomware attack, that damage systems that contain electronic protected health information; and
  • implement policies and procedures to allow only authorized users access to electronic protected health information.

Under the terms of the resolution agreement, Heritage Valley will pay $950,000 and implement a corrective action plan that OCR will monitor for three years. The plan requires Heritage Valley to take steps to protect the security of electronic protected health information (ePHI), including:

  • Conduct an accurate and thorough risk analysis to determine the potential risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of its electronic protected health information;
  • Implement a risk management plan to address and mitigate security risks and vulnerabilities identified in their risk analysis;
  • Review and develop, maintain, and revise, as necessary, its written policies and procedures to comply with the HIPAA Rules; and
  • Train its workforce on its HIPAA policies and procedures.

Strong Cybersecurity Deters and Prevents Ransomware

OCR recommends that all covered entities and business associates take the following steps to mitigate or prevent cyber threats:

  • Review all vendor and contractor relationships to ensure business associate agreements are in place as appropriate and address breach/security incident obligations.
  • Integrate risk analysis and risk management into business processes. Conduct these regularly and when new technologies and business operations are planned.
  • Ensure audit controls are in place to record and examine information system activity.
  • Implement regular review of information system activity.
  • Utilize multi-factor authentication to ensure only authorized users access electronic protected health information (ePHI).
  • Encrypt ePHI to guard against unauthorized access to ePHI.
  • Incorporate lessons learned from incidents into the overall security management process.
  • Provide regular training specific to the organization and job responsibilities, reinforcing workforce members’ critical role in protecting privacy and security.

The HIPAA E-Tool®  program makes all of these steps easier. It contains up-to-date policies, a Risk Analysis and Risk Management module, training, and step-by-step guidance about strengthening your compliance, regardless of your starting point.

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Maggie Hales

Maggie Hales is a lawyer focusing on health information privacy and security. As CEO of ET&C Group LLC she advises health care providers and business associates in 36 states, Canada, Egypt, India and the EU, using The HIPAA E-Tool® to deliver up to date policies, forms and training on everything related to HIPAA compliance.

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