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

Back to the SAIC Breach and a Look Across the Chasm Between Significant Risk and Actual Harm Resulting from a HIPAA Breach

Posted in Security Breach Notification

Elizabeth Litten and Michael Kline write:

We have posted several blogs, including those here and here, tracking the reported 2011 theft of computer tapes from the car of an employee of Science Applications International Corporation (“SAIC”) that contained the protected health information (“PHI”) affecting approximately 5 million military clinic and hospital patients (the “SAIC Breach”).  SAIC’s recent Motion to Dismiss (the “Motion”) the Consolidated Amended Complaint filed in federal court in Florida as a putative class action (the “SAIC Class Action”) highlights the gaps between an incident (like a theft) involving PHI, a determination that a breach of PHI has occurred, and the realization of harm resulting from the breach. SAIC’s Motion emphasizes this gap between the incident and the realization of harm, making it appear like a chasm so wide it practically swallows the breach into oblivion. 

 

SAIC, a giant publicly-held government contractor that provides information technology (“IT”) management and, ironically, cyber security services, was engaged to provide IT management services to TRICARE Management Activity, a component of TRICARE, the military health plan (“TRICARE”) for active duty service members working for the U.S. Department of Defense (“DoD”).  SAIC employees had been contracted to transport backup tapes containing TRICARE members’ PHI from one location to another.

 

According to the original statement published in late September of 2011 ( the “TRICARE/SAIC Statement”) the PHI “may include Social Security numbers, addresses and phone numbers, and some personal health data such as clinical notes, laboratory tests and prescriptions.” However, the TRICARE/SAIC Statement said that there was no financial data, such as credit card or bank account information, on the backup tapes. Note 17 to the audited financial statements (“Note 17”) contained in the SAIC Annual Report on Form 10-K for the fiscal year ended January 31, 2012, dated March 27, 2012 (the “2012 Form 10-K”), filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) includes the following:

 

There is no evidence that any of the data on the backup tapes has actually been accessed or viewed by an unauthorized person. In order for an unauthorized person to access or view the data on the backup tapes, it would require knowledge of and access to specific hardware and software and knowledge of the system and data structure.  The Company [SAIC] has notified potentially impacted persons by letter and is offering one year of credit monitoring services to those who request these services and in certain circumstances, one year of identity restoration services.

While the TRICARE/SAIC Statement contained similar language to that quoted above from Note 17, the earlier TRICARE/SAIC Statement also said, “The risk of harm to patients is judged to be low despite the data elements . . . .” Because Note 17 does not contain such “risk of harm” language, it would appear that (i) there may have been a change in the assessment of risk by SAIC six months after the SAIC Breach or (ii) SAIC did not want to state such a judgment in an SEC filing.

 

Note 17 also discloses that SAIC has reflected a $10 million loss provision in its financial statements relating to the  SAIC Class Action and various other putative class actions respecting the SAIC Breach filed between October 2011 and March 2012 (for a total of seven such actions filed in four different federal District Courts).  In Note 17 SAIC states that the $10 million loss provision represents the “low end” of SAIC’s estimated loss and is the amount of SAIC’s deductible under insurance covering judgments or settlements and defense costs of litigation respecting the SAIC Breach.  SAIC expresses the belief in Note 17 that any loss experienced in excess of the $10 million loss provision would not exceed the insurance coverage.  

 

Such insurance coverage would, however, likely not be available for any civil monetary penalties or counsel fees that may result from the current investigation of the SAIC Breach being conducted by the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) as described in Note 17.

  

Initially, SAIC did not deem it necessary to offer credit monitoring to the almost 5 million reportedly affected individuals. However, SAIC urged anyone suspecting they had been affected to contact the Federal Trade Commission’s identity theft website. Approximately 6 weeks later, the DoD issued a press release stating that TRICARE had “directed” SAIC to take a “proactive” response by covering a year of free credit monitoring and restoration services for any patients expressing “concern about their credit as a result of the data breach.”   The cost of such a proactive response easily can run into millions of dollars in the SAIC Breach. It is unclear the extent, if any, to which insurance coverage would be available to cover the cost of the proactive response mandated by the DoD, even if the credit monitoring, restoration services and other remedial activities of SAIC were to become part of a judgment or settlement in the putative class actions.

 

We have blogged about what constitutes an impermissible acquisition, access, use or disclosure of unsecured PHI that poses a “significant risk” of “financial, reputational, or other harm to the individual” amounting to a reportable HIPAA breach, and when that “significant risk” develops into harm that may create claims for damages by affected individuals. Our partner William Maruca, Esq., artfully borrows a phrase from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in discussing a recent disappearance of unencrypted backup tapes reported by Women and Infants Hospital in Rhode Island. If one knows PHI has disappeared, but doubts it can be accessed or used (due to the specialized equipment and expertise required to access or use the PHI), there is a “known unknown” that complicates the analysis as to whether a breach has occurred. 

 

As we await publication of the “mega” HIPAA/HITECH regulations, continued tracking of the SAIC Breach and ensuing class action litigation (as well as SAIC’s SEC filings and other government filings and reports on the HHS list of large PHI security breaches) provides some insights as to how covered entities and business associates respond to incidents involving the loss or theft of, or possible access to, PHI.   If a covered entity or business associate concludes that the incident poses a “significant risk” of harm, but no harm actually materializes, perhaps (as the SAIC Motion repeatedly asserts) claims for damages are inappropriate. When the covered entity or business associate takes a “proactive” approach in responding to what it has determined to be a “significant risk” (such as by offering credit monitoring and restoration services), perhaps the risk becomes less significant. But once the incident (a/k/a, the ubiquitous laptop or computer tape theft from an employee’s car) has been deemed a breach, the chasm between incident and harm seems to open wide enough to encompass a mind-boggling number of privacy and security violation claims and issues.