HHS Resolves Internal Cybersecurity Breach Inquiry

by | Feb 13, 2024 | HIPAA News and Advice

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office for Civil Rights (OCR), has reached a settlement with Montefiore Medical Center, marking a conclusion to an investigation into serious cybersecurity breaches. This settlement, amounting to $4.75 million, addresses multiple potential violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Security Rule by the New York City-based non-profit hospital system. The breaches in question involved the theft and sale of patients’ protected health information by an insider over a six-month period. Such incidents show a troubling reality of malicious insider threats in the healthcare sector, a problem that OCR Director Melanie Fontes Rainer stated as increasingly common. This settlement serves as a punitive measure, and is a reminder of the necessity for healthcare providers to diligently protect patient information against both external and internal threats.

The origins of the investigation trace back to an alert from the New York Police Department to Montefiore Medical Center about a theft of a patient’s medical information. This prompt led to the discovery of a far-reaching data breach involving the unauthorized access and sale of electronic protected health information (ePHI) of 12,517 patients by an employee. This breach laid bare several lapses in Montefiore’s cybersecurity defenses in risk analysis, system monitoring, and the implementation of effective policies and procedures for protecting health information systems. The settlement with OCR mandates a corrective action plan, requiring Montefiore to undertake a thorough assessment of potential security risks to ePHI and to develop a robust risk management plan. Montefiore is also tasked with enhancing its hardware and software systems to monitor and record activity in systems handling ePHI, a required step for preventing future breaches.

The OCR’s enforcement action against Montefiore Medical Center is part of a HHS initiative to improve cybersecurity in the healthcare sector, evidenced by the release of a department-wide Cybersecurity strategy and the introduction of voluntary performance goals aimed at enhancing cybersecurity across the health sector. This approach displays the federal government’s recognition of the complex cybersecurity challenges facing healthcare providers. Deputy Secretary of HHS, Andrea Palm, emphasized the importance of maintaining patient trust through the secure handling of medical records, further showing the ongoing efforts to remind healthcare systems of their obligations under HIPAA. The Montefiore settlement is a positive in the ongoing battle against cyber threats within healthcare, signaling a clear message about the importance of cybersecurity vigilance and the consequences of failing to protect patient information.

In light of this settlement and the growing trend of cyber-attacks, OCR has provided a suite of recommendations and resources aimed at assisting HIPAA-covered entities in bolstering their cybersecurity defenses. These recommendations include conducting regular risk analyses and management, reviewing vendor and contractor relationships, implementing audit controls, and utilizing multi-factor authentication, among other strategies. These guidelines are part of OCR’s overall mission to enforce the privacy and security of health information under HIPAA, a task that has become increasingly complex in the face of evolving cyber threats. The emphasis on training and regular review of security practices includes human factors in cybersecurity, reminding healthcare organizations of the need to cultivate a culture of security awareness among their workforce.

The resolution between OCR and Montefiore Medical Center, while mainly involving robust cybersecurity measures within healthcare institutions, also creates a standard for the enforcement of data protection standards under HIPAA. This settlement, reflective of the OCR’s commitment to upholding the security of health information, mandates a financial penalty and a significant corrective action plan aimed at rectifying the underlying issues that led to the breach. Montefiore is now required to conduct a detailed assessment of security risks, develop a comprehensive risk management plan, and enhance system monitoring to prevent future incidents.

3 Steps To HIPAA Compliance

Step 1 : Download Checklist.

Step 2 : Review Your Business

Step 3 : Get Compliant!

Our HIPAA compliance checklist will outline everything your organization needs to become fully HIPAA compliant. Fill in the form below to download it now.

View our privacy policy