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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

Unencrypted Laptops Prove Costly

Posted in Articles, HIPAA Enforcement, Privacy & Security

Is the PHI on all your mobile devices encrypted?  If not, here’s another two million reasons to make encryption your top priority. The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the Department of Health and Human Services announced on April 22, 2014 that they had imposed nearly $2 million in penalties on two entities as a result of the theft of unencrypted laptops.

As previously noted in this blog, theft or loss of laptops or other portable electronic devices remains a predominant factor in HIPAA breaches, constituting 57.5% of the approximately 400 List Breaches that involved reported theft or loss as of August 2013.

In the first incident, Concentra Health Services was fined $1,725,220 and agreed to adopt a corrective action plan after an OCR investigation following a report of the theft of an unencrypted laptop from a physical therapy clinic.  According to the press release,

“OCR’s investigation revealed Concentra had previously recognized in multiple risk analyses that a lack of encryption on its laptops, desktop computers, medical equipment, tablets and other devices containing electronic protected health information (ePHI) was a critical risk.  While steps were taken to begin encryption, Concentra’s efforts were incomplete and inconsistent over time leaving patient PHI vulnerable throughout the organization. OCR’s investigation further found Concentra had insufficient security management processes in place to safeguard patient information.”

This isn’t Concentra’s first experience with laptop theft. The OCR list of Breaches Affecting 500 or More Individuals (also known as the “Wall of Shame”) includes two prior similar incidents, one in 2009 and another in 2011. (It is unclear whether this theft was related to the 2011 incident). Modern Healthcare reports that Concentra reported 16 additional breaches involving fewer than 500 individuals’ records.  So, although 434 out of 597 laptops had been encrypted according to HealthITSecurity.com, a batting average of .726 wasn’t good enough given their status as repeat offenders. Concentra’s resolution agreement, including the Corrective Action Plan, is available here and is worth reading.  Among other conditions, OCR requires that the company provide an update regarding its encryption status, including the percentage of all Concentra devices and equipment (laptops, desktops, medical equipment, tablets, and other storage devices) that are encrypted and an explanation for the percentage of devices and equipment that are not encrypted.

The company’s incomplete and inadequate implementation of compliance steps after known vulnerabilities had been identified may also have contributed to the severity of the penalty.  One of the worst things a covered entity or business associate can do is to engage in a half-hearted compliance effort that documents knowledge of uncorrected problems.

In the second case, Arkansas-based QCA Health Plan reported the theft of an unencrypted laptop containing records of 148 individuals. OCR noted that its investigation revealed that QCA failed to comply with multiple requirements of the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules, beginning from the compliance date of the Security Rule in April 2005 and ending in June 2012. QCA agreed to pay $250,000 and implement upgraded security procedures and employee training. QCA’s Resolution Agreement and Corrective Action Plan is here. This case marks only the second time OCR has fined an entity for a breach involving less than 500 individuals’ PHI, following the Hospice of North Idaho settlement.

One lesson is clear from both incidents: if these laptops had been encrypted in accordance with NIST standards, neither entity would have been subjected to fines and additional government oversight.  As enforcement continues to ramp up and target both Covered Entities and Business Associates, and as the use of mobile devices continues to increase, there is no excuse to delay full implementation of encryption.  Encryption isn’t a panacea, but it’s as close as you can get in the HIPAA compliance world.