Header graphic for print
HIPAA, HITECH & HIT Legal Issues, Developments and Other Pertinent Information Relating To The Creation, Use and Exchange of Electronic Health Records

Did Tricare/DoD Make a “Proactive Response” or a Preemptive Strike with SAIC in the PHI Breach Matter? Whose Risk is it Anyway? – Part 4

Posted in Security Breach Notification

By: Elizabeth Litten and Michael Kline

[Capitalized terms not otherwise defined in this Part 4 shall have the meanings assigned to them in Part 3 or earlier Parts.]

 

As reported in Part 3 of this blog series, Tricare and SAIC did not initially offer credit monitoring services to patients affected by the 2011 Breach made public on September 29, 2011, due to what was then judged to be the low “risk of harm” to those affected.  The Public Statement specifically answered the question “Will credit monitoring and restoration services be provided to protect affected individuals against possible identity theft?” as follows:

 

No.  The risk of harm to patients is judged to be low despite the data elements involved. Retrieving the data on the tapes would require knowledge of and access to specific hardware and software and knowledge of the system and data structure. To date, we have no conclusive evidence that indicates beneficiaries are at risk of identify theft, but all are encouraged to monitor their credit and place a free fraud alert of their credit for a period of 90 days using the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) web site.  

 

Now, less than 6 weeks later, Tricare has directed SAIC to provide one year of credit monitoring and restoration services to patients “who express concern about their credit” as a result of the 2011 Breach.  In a press release issued by the DoD on November 4, 2011, entitled "Proactive Response to Recent Data Breach Announced" (the “DoD Press Release”), Tricare Management Activity’s deputy director explains,

 

These additional proactive security measures exceed the industry standard to protect against the risk of identity theft.  We take very seriously our responsibility to offer patients peace of mind that their credit and quality of life will be unaffected by this breach.  

 

It is unclear that the new security measure exceeds the “industry standard,” as evidenced by numerous past postings respecting PHI security breaches in this blog series. In some cases as long as two years of credit monitoring was offered to affected individuals. However, given the assurances in the Public Statement to the “approximately 4.9 million patients treated at military hospitals and clinics during the past 20 years” that the risk of harm was low and there was no conclusive evidence that patients were at risk of identity theft, one can speculate as to whether Tricare’s abrupt about-face relates to new evidence, a revised judgment as to the risk of harm to affected patients and/or simply an abundance of caution as to its own exposure to risk. 

 

Then again, Tricare’s new position could have less to do with new concerns related to patient identity theft risk, and more to do with a “proactive response” or even a preemptive strike by Tricare and DoD to combat certain of the allegations in the putative class action lawsuit filed against them  in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on October 11, 2011 (Gaffney v. Tricare Management Activity, et. al., Case No. 1:2011cv01800) (the “Class Action Complaint”).  Each of Virginia Gaffney and Adrienne Taylor, two of the plaintiffs named in the Class Action Complaint, has alleged that she had “incurred an economic loss as a result of having to purchase a credit monitoring service to alert her to potential misappropriation of her identity.” 

 

By offering the credit monitoring services to all of the 4.9 million affected individuals, Tricare and DoD may be endeavoring to render moot or at least mitigate the risk from those allegations in the Class Action Complaint. [Note: The recent posting of the 2011 Breach in the HHS List, which did not provide any information beyond that reflected in the Public Statement, earlier reported “5,117,799” as the approximate number of individuals affected, but the current number reported is “4,901,432.”]

 

The Class Action Complaint seeks judgment against Tricare and DoD for damages in an amount of $1,000 for each affected individual.  Perhaps Tricare and DoD did the quick math and realized that the cost of credit monitoring and restoration for a subset (those “expressing concern”) of the roughly 4.9 million affected patients would be far less than the almost $5 billion aggregate damages award sought in the Class Action Complaint.  Tricare may have reversed its stance as a result of this “risk of harm” analysis, and not because of new information or a revised evaluation related to a heightened risk of harm to affected individuals.