Healthcare Data Privacy

Vulnerabilities in Servers Behind Majority of Healthcare Data Breaches

Cybercriminals are managing to find and exploit vulnerabilities to gain access to healthcare networks and patient data with increasing regularity. The past two months have been the worst and second worst ever months for healthcare data breaches in terms of the number of breaches reported.

Phishing attacks on healthcare organizations have increased and email is now the most common location of breached protected health information. However, a recent analysis of the data breaches reported to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the past 12 months has revealed servers to be the biggest risk. Servers were found to be involved in more than half of all healthcare data breaches.

Clearwater Cyberintelligence Institute (CCI) analyzed the 90 healthcare data breaches reported to OCR in the past 12 months. Those breaches resulted in the exposure, impermissible disclosure, or theft of the records of more than 9 million individuals.

The CCI analysis revealed 54% of all reported breaches of 500 or more healthcare records were in some way related to servers.

Servers house essential programs that are used across the healthcare organization. As a central repository of programs and data, they are an attractive target for hackers. Once access has been gained, data can be viewed, copied, altered, or deleted, systems can be sabotaged, and healthcare organizations can be subjected to extortion using ransomware.

CCI performed a risk analysis to determine high and critical risks facing health systems and hospitals. CCI determined 63% of all identified risks were related to the failure to adequately address vulnerabilities in servers.

The high number of server-related data breaches clearly shows that those flaws are being exploited by hackers to gain access to healthcare networks.

According to CCI, one of the most common server vulnerabilities is the failure to keep on top of user account management. When employees leave the company their accounts must be deleted. Dormant accounts are a major risk and are often used by malicious actors to access systems and mask their activities. CCI notes the risk increases with the number of accounts that are left dormant. The longer those accounts are left open, the greater the likelihood that at least one will be used for illicit or malicious purposes.

To address this risk, security controls should be implemented that automatically disable or delete accounts when the HR department changes the status of an employee. If that is not possible, CCI recommends conducting frequent, periodic reviews to ensure all unused accounts are disabled.

In an ideal world, an account would be disabled instantly. In practice, CCI recommends having the systems, policies, and procedures in place to ensure no account remains open for more than 48 hours after it is no longer required.

Reviews of system activity logs should also be conducted to determine whether dormant accounts have been used inappropriately or if any actively used accounts have been compromised or are being misused.

Excessive permissions on user accounts is another serious server vulnerability. Excessive permissions can result in accidental or deliberate access, alteration, or deletion of data. The failure to restrict access rights is also a violation of the HIPAA principle of least privilege.

CCI reports that the risk of excessive user permissions is highest in organizations that do not regularly review user permissions (43.6%), perform user activity reviews (43.6%), or when there is a lack of proper user account management (43.1%).

Regular reviews of user activity will help healthcare organizations to quickly identify anomalies in user data that could be indicative of account misuse or a cyberattack. The frequency of those reviews should be dictated by several factors, including staff turnover and the number of users. CCI suggests user permission and user activity log reviews at least every quarter for an organization with 100 or more users.

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May 2019 Healthcare Data Breach Report

In April, more healthcare data breaches were reported than in any other month to date. The high level of data breaches has continued in May, with 44 data breaches reported. Those breaches resulted in the exposure of almost 2 million individuals’ protected health information.

Healthcare data breaches by month 2014-2019

On average, 2018 saw 29.5 healthcare data breaches reported to the HHS’ Office for Civil Rights each month – a rate of more than one a day.

From January 2019 to May 2019, an average of 37.2 breaches have been reported each month. Up until May 31, 2019, 186 healthcare data breaches had been reported to OCR, which is more than half (52%) the number of breaches reported last year.

It remains to be seen whether the increase in data breaches is just a temporary blip or whether 40+ healthcare data breaches a month will become the new norm.

Healthcare records exposed by month 2017-2019

May saw a 186% increase in the number of exposed records compared to April. Across the 44 breaches, 1,988,376 healthcare records were exposed or compromised in May. So far this year, more than 6 million healthcare records have been exposed, which is more than half of the number of records exposed in 2018.

Healthcare records exposed by year 2014-2019

In terms of the number of records exposed, May would have been similar to April were it not for a massive data breach at the healthcare clearinghouse Inmediata Health Group. The breach was the largest of the year to date and resulted in the exposure of 1,565,338 records.

A web page which was supposed to only be accessible internally had been misconfigured and the page could be accessed by anyone over the internet.


Rank Name of Covered Entity Covered Entity Type Individuals Affected Type of Breach
1 Inmediata Health Group, Corp. Healthcare Clearing House 1,565,338 Unauthorized Access/Disclosure
2 Talley Medical Surgical Eyecare Associates, PC Healthcare Provider 106,000 Unauthorized Access/Disclosure
3 The Union Labor Life Insurance Company Health Plan 87,400 Hacking/IT Incident
4 Encompass Family and internal medicine group Healthcare Provider 26,000 Unauthorized Access/Disclosure
5 The Southeastern Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Healthcare Provider 25,148 Hacking/IT Incident
6 Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) at Southeastern Regional Medical Center Healthcare Provider 16,819 Hacking/IT Incident
7 Takai, Hoover, and Hsu, P.A. Healthcare Provider 16,542 Unauthorized Access/Disclosure
8 Hematology Oncology Associates, PC Healthcare Provider 16,073 Hacking/IT Incident
9 Acadia Montana Treatment Center Healthcare Provider 14,794 Hacking/IT Incident
10 American Baptist Homes of the Midwest Healthcare Provider 10,993 Hacking/IT Incident

Causes of May 2019 Healthcare Data Breaches

Hacking/IT incidents were the most numerous in May with 22 reported incidents. In total, 225,671 records were compromised in those breaches. The average breach size was 10,258 records with a median of 4,375 records.

There were 18 unauthorized access/disclosure incidents in May, which resulted in the exposure of 1,752,188 healthcare records. The average breach size was 97,344 records and the median size was 2,418 records.

8,624 records were stolen in three theft incidents. The average breach size 2,875 records and the median size was 3,578 records. There was one loss incident involving 1,893 records.

causes of May 2019 healthcare data breaches

Location of Breached PHI

Email continues to be the most common location of breached PHI. 50% of the month’s breaches involved at least some PHI stored in email accounts. The main cause of these types of breaches is phishing attacks.

Network servers were the second most common location of PHI. They were involved in 11 breaches, which included hacks, malware infections and ransomware attacks.  Electronic medical records were involved in 7 breaches, most of which were unauthorized access/disclosure breaches.

Location of breached PHi (may 2019)

May 2019 Healthcare Data Breaches by Covered Entity Type

Healthcare providers were the worst affected covered entity type in May with 34 breaches. 5 breaches were reported by health plans and 4 breaches were reported by business associates of HIPAA-covered entities. A further two breaches had some business associate involvement. One breach involved a healthcare clearinghouse.

May 2019 healthcare data breaches by covered entity type

May 2019 Healthcare Data Breaches by State

May saw healthcare data breaches reported by entities in 17 states.  Texas was the worst affected state in May with 7 reported breaches. There were 4 breaches reported by covered entities and business associates in California and 3 breaches were reported in each of Indiana and New York.

2 breaches were reported by entities base in Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Washington, and Puerto Rico. One breach was reported in each of Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, and Pennsylvania.

HIPAA Enforcement Actions in May 2019

OCR agreed two settlements with HIPAA covered entities in May and closed the month with fines totaling $3,100,000.

Touchstone Medical Imaging agreed to settle its HIPAA violation case for $3,000,000. The Franklin, TN-based diagnostic medical imaging services company was investigated after it was discovered that an FTP server was accessible over the internet in 2014.

The settlement resolves 8 alleged HIPAA violations including the lack of a BAA, insufficient access rights, a risk analysis failure, the failure to respond to a security incident, a breach notification failure, a media notification failure, and the impermissible disclosure of the PHI of 307,839 individuals.

Medical Informatics Engineering settled its case with OCR and agreed to pay a financial penalty of $100,000 to resolve alleged HIPAA violations uncovered during the investigation of its 2015 breach of 3.5 million patient records. Hackers had gained access to MIE servers for 19 days in May 2015.

OCR determined there had been a failure to conduct a comprehensive risk analysis and, as a result of that failure, there was an impermissible disclosure of 3.5 million individuals’ PHI.

It did not end there for MIE. MIE also settled a multi-state lawsuit filed by 16 state attorneys general. A multi-state investigation uncovered several HIPAA violations. MIE agreed to pay a penalty of $900,000 to resolve the case.

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Alabama Jury Awards Woman $300,000 Damages over HIPAA Breach

A woman in Alabama has been awarded $300,000 in damages after a doctor illegally accessed and disclosed her protected health information to a third party.

Plaintiff Amy Pertuit filed a lawsuit against Medical Center Enterprise (MCE) in Alabama, a former MCE physician, and an attorney over the violation of her privacy in January 2015.

According to lawyers for the plaintiff, Amy Pertuit’s husband was experiencing visitation issues and was involved in a custody battle with his former wife, Deanna Mortenson.

Mortenson contacted Dr. Lyn Diefendfer, a physician at MCE, and convinced her to obtain health information about Amy Pertuit for use against her husband in the custody battle. The information was disclosed to Mortenson’s attorney, Gary Bradshaw.

Dr. Diefendfer accessed Pertuit’s records through the Alabama Prescription Drug Monitoring Program website. Since Dr. Diefendfer had no treatment relationship with Pertuit, she was not authorized to access her medical information. The access and disclosure were violations of hospital policies and HIPAA Rules.

After discovering that her health information had been disclosed, Pertuit lodged a complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights which put the hospital on notice. However, the hospital failed to implement appropriate sanctions against Diefendfer. Dr. Diefendfer is alleged to have accessed further health information in 2016 and again disclosed that information to Bradshaw.

The plaintiff’s lawyers also said that the hospital’s privacy officer had investigated Dr. Diefendfer and discovered 22 separate violations of hospital policies and HIPAA Rules.

The lawsuits filed against Dr. Diefender, Deanna Mortensen, and Gary Bradshaw were all settled out of court. The case against MCE went to a jury trial.

The jury unanimously found that MCE had failed to take appropriate action against Dr. Diefender after the discovery of the privacy violation, and awarded the plaintiff $295,000 in punitive damages and a further $5,000 as compensation for pain, suffering, and humiliation.

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Nurse Fired over Alleged Theft and Impermissible Disclosure of PHI

A former employee of a Germantown, MD-based healthcare provider is suspected of accessing the protected health information of up to 16,542 patients and providing that information to a third party for use in fraudulent activities.

On April 10, 2019, Takai, Hoover & Hsu, P.A., which runs THH Paediatrics in Germantown, was notified by county and state police that an individual had been arrested as part of an investigation in a matter unrelated to THH.

That individual was associated with an employee of THH who is suspected of accessing and impermissibly disclosing patient information including names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, and addresses of the parents of patients.

Immediate action was taken by THH to investigate the allegations. Access to patient data was restricted for the employee, who was placed on leave on April 16 pending the outcome of the internal and law enforcement investigations.

The former employee has not been charged at this stage and no direct evidence has been found to suggest that any patient information was taken and misused; however, THH took the decision to fire the employee on May 3, 2019 after receiving further information from law enforcement. The matter has also been reported the Maryland Board of Nursing.

THH has hired a computer forensics company to conduct a detailed investigation of its computer systems to determine what, if any, protected health information has been accessed and whether information was copied.

Monroe County Hospital Notifies 10,970 Patients About PHI Breach at Navicent Health

Monroe County Hospital (MCH) in Forsyth, GA, is notifying 10,970 patients that some of their PHI may have been compromised in a security breach at one of its vendors.

On March 26, 2019, the hospital was informed by Navicent Health that some patient information was potentially compromised in a recent cyberattack. An unauthorized individual had gained access to the email accounts of several Navicent Health employees and potentially accessed MCH patient data. This was part of a much larger breach affecting more than 278,000 patients.

The forensic investigation revealed the following PHI may have been compromised: Names, addresses, dates of birth, medical record numbers, limited health information, and for certain individuals, driver’s license numbers or Social Security numbers.

All affected individuals were mailed notification letters on May 24.

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AMCA Breach Sparks Flurry of Lawsuits and Investigations

The dust has barely settled after the news of the massive data breach at American Medical Collection Agency (AMCA) broke last week, but already more than a dozen lawsuits have been filed by victims of the breach.

The breach was officially announced by Quest Diagnostics on June 3, 2019 through a 8-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and a SEC filing by LabCorp on June 4, 2019, shortly followed by BioReference Laboratories. Currently, the personal of up to 20 million individuals has potentially been compromised.

The data breach at AMCA was identified by security researchers at Gemini Advisory who found a batch of 200,000 payment card numbers for sale on a popular darknet marketplace. The numbers included dates of birth and Social Security numbers. AMCA and law enforcement were notified, and systems were secured. However, the investigation revealed hackers had access to its web payment portal for 7 months.

It would appear that the hackers behind the breach have at least made an effort to monetize some of the stolen data so it is no surprise that there has been a flurry of class action lawsuits filed on behalf of victims of the breach. Plaintiffs in the lawsuits claim to have been harmed as a result of the data breach.

Most of the lawsuits name one or more of the laboratories where testing occurred – Quest Diagnostics, LabCorp and BioReference Laboratories. A small number also name AMCA and the company Optum360. Optum360 was a business associate of Quest Diagnostics. Under certain circumstances, when a patient did not pay a bill, Quest Diagnostics sent the patient’s information to Optum360, which passed the data to AMCA for collection.

Several of the class action lawsuits allege negligence and breach of implied contract for failing to secure personal information. One complaint alleges the use of encryption and the adoption of national and industry standards were warranted to prevent reasonably foreseeable harm to patients. However, even though the defendants had the funds available to implement controls to prevent the breach, they failed to adequately invest in their security programs.

The lawsuits allege various violations of state laws and are seeking damages, monetary relief, and penalties to be issued over the privacy violation.

Only a small percentage of the individuals have been notified about the breach by AMCA – mostly individuals who had their financial information exposed. The healthcare organizations that provided AMCA with health information are still waiting to receive details of all individuals affected. As more notification letters are sent, is likely that the numbers of affected individuals in these class-action lawsuits will swell and further lawsuits will be filed.

In addition to battling the class action lawsuits, all of the entities involved now face scrutiny by state and federal regulators and Congress. The breach will certainly be investigated by the HHS’ Office for Civil Rights to determine whether HIPAA Rules have been violated. So far, at least six state attorneys general have launched investigations into the breach: Michigan, New York, Minnesota, North Carolina, Illinois and Connecticut and have demanded answers about the breach.

If the investigations do uncover noncompliance with state or federal laws, financial penalties may be pursued. Already this year, state attorneys general have joined forces and filed a multi-state HIPAA lawsuit against Medical Informatics Engineering over its 2014 data breach. That breach resulted in a settlement of $900,000.

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Vermont Supreme Court Ruled Patient Can Sue Hospital and Employee for Privacy Violation

The Supreme Court in Vermont has ruled that a patient can sue a hospital and one of its employees for a privacy violation, despite Vermont law and HIPAA not having a private cause of action for privacy violations.

The lawsuit alleges negligence over the disclosure of personal information that was obtained while the patient was being treated in the emergency room. The woman had visited the ER room to receive treatment for a laceration on her arm. The ER nurse who provided care to the patient notified law enforcement that the patient was intoxicated, had driven to the hospital, and intended to drive home after receiving treatment.

The nurse had detected an odor of alcohol on the patient’s breath. Using an alco-sensor, the nurse determined the patient had blood alcohol content of 0.215. In Vermont, that blood alcohol level is more than two and a half times the legal limit for driving. A police officer in the lobby of the hospital was notified and the patient was arrested, although charges were later dropped.

The women subsequently sued the hospital and the employee for violating her privacy by disclosing her health information to law enforcement.

The HIPAA Privacy Rule limits uses and disclosures of protected health information to treatment, payment, and healthcare operations, but there are exceptions. One of those exceptions is when a disclosure is made when there is a perceived serious threat to health or safety. The Privacy Rule permits such a disclosure if the disclosure is made to a person who could prevent or lessen a threat to either to the patient or the public.

Under the circumstances, the disclosure was reasonable and appropriate, which is what the Supreme Court ultimately concluded, affirming the Superior Court’s judgement. The disclosure was determined to have been made in order to mitigate an imminent threat to both the patient and the public. The Court rules “no reasonable factfinder could determine the disclosure was for any other purpose.” The plaintiff failed to prove that the disclosure had been made for any other purpose, such as in order for the patient to be arrested and charged.

The ruling is perfectly understandable; however, what is atypical is the case was given standing when state and HIPAA laws do not include a private cause of action. Patients do not have the right to sue their providers over violations of HIPAA laws and laws in Vermont also do not give patients that right. The case was ruled to have standing under a common-law private right of action for damages.

While the lawsuit was not successful, it could be cited in other lawsuits filed by patients who allege their privacy has been violated by their healthcare providers.

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Multi-State Action Results in $900,000 Financial Penalty for Medical Informatics Engineering

Medical Informatics Engineering (MIE) is required to pay a financial penalty of $900,000 to resolve a multi-state action over HIPAA violations related to a breach of 3.9 million records in 2015. The announcement comes just a few days after the HHS’ Office for Civil Rights settled its HIPAA violation case with MIE for $100,000.

MIE licenses a web-based electronic health record application called WebChart and its subsidiary, NoMoreClipboard (NMC), provides patient portal and personal health record services to healthcare providers that allow patients to access and manage their health information. By providing those services, MIE and NMC are business associates and are required to comply with HIPAA Rules.

Between May 7 and May 26 2015, hackers gained access to a server containing data related to its NMC service.  Names, addresses, usernames, passwords, and sensitive health information were potentially accessed and stolen.

A lawsuit was filed in December 2018 alleging MIE and NMC had violated state laws and several HIPAA provisions. 16 state attorneys general were named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit: Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

The plaintiffs’ investigation into the breach revealed hackers had exploited several vulnerabilities, MIE had poor password policies in place, and security management protocols had not been followed.

Under the terms of the consent judgement, in addition to the financial penalty, MIE must implement and maintain an information security program and deploy a security incident and event monitoring (SIEM) solution to allow it to detect and respond quickly to cyberattacks.

Data loss prevention technology must be deployed to prevent the unauthorized exfiltration of data, controls must be implemented to prevent SQL injection attacks, and activity logs must be maintained and regularly reviewed.

Password policies must be implemented that require the use of strong, complex passwords and multi-factor authentication and single sign-on must be used on all systems that store or are used to access ePHI.

Additional controls need to be implemented covering the creation of accounts that have access to ePHI. MIE must refrain from using generic accounts that can be accessed via the Internet and no generic accounts are allowed to have administrative privileges.

MIE is also required to comply with all the administrative and technical safeguards of the HIPAA Security Rule and states’ deceptive trade practices acts with respect to the collection, maintenance, and safeguarding of consumers’ protected health information. Reasonable security policies and procedures must be implemented and maintained to protect that information. MIE must also provide appropriate training to all employees regarding its information security policies and procedures at least annually.

In addition, MIE is required to engage a third-party professional to conduct an annual risk analysis to identify threats and vulnerabilities to ePHI each year for the next five years. A report of the findings of that risk analysis and the recommendations must be sent to the Indiana Attorney General within 180 days and annually thereafter.

The consent judgement has been agreed by all parties and resolves the alleged HIPAA violations and violations of state laws. The consent judgement now awaits court approval. The consent judgement can be found on the website of the Florida Office of the Attorney General – PDF.

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HHS Confirms When HIPAA Fines Can be Issued to Business Associates

Since the Department of Health and Human Services implemented the requirements of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act of 2009 in the 2013 Omnibus Final Rule, business associates of HIPAA covered entities can be directly fined for violations of HIPAA Rules.

On May 24, 2019, to clear up confusion about business associate liability for HIPAA violations, the HHS’ Office for Civil Rights clarified exactly what HIPAA violations could result in a financial penalty for a business associate.

Business associates of HIPAA Covered entities can only be held directly liable for the requirements and prohibitions of the HIPAA Rules detailed below. OCR does not have the authority to issue financial penalties to business associates for any aspect of HIPAA noncompliance not detailed on the list.


You can download the HHS Fact Sheet on direct liability of business associates on this link.

business associate liability for HIPAA violations

Penalties for HIPAA Violations by Business Associates

The HITECH Act called for an increase in financial penalties for noncompliance with HIPAA Rules. In 2009, the HHS determined that the language of the HITECH Act called for a maximum financial penalty of $1.5 million for violations of an identical provision in a single year. That maximum penalty amount was applied across the four penalty tiers, regardless of the level of culpability.

A re-examination of the text of the HITECH Act in 2019 saw the HHS interpret the penalty requirements differently. The $1.5 million maximum penalty was kept for the highest penalty tier, but each of the other penalty tiers had the maximum possible fine reduced to reflect the level of culpability.

Subject to further rulemaking, the HHS will be using the penalty structure detailed in the infographic below.


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Medical Informatics Engineering Settles HIPAA Breach Case for $100,000

Medical Informatics Engineering, Inc (MIE) has settled its HIPAA violation case with the HHS’ Office for Civil Rights for $100,000.

MIE, an Indiana-based provider of electronic medical record software and services, experienced a major data breach in 2015 at its NoMoreClipboard subsidiary.

Hackers used a compromised username and password to gain access to a server that contained the protected health information (PHI) of 3.5 million individuals. The hackers had access to the server for 19 days between May 7 and May 26, 2015. 239 of its healthcare clients were impacted by the breach.

OCR was notified about the breach on July 23, 2015 and launched an investigation to determine whether it was the result of non-compliance with HIPAA Rules.

OCR discovered MIE had failed to conduct an accurate and through risk analysis to identify all potential risks to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of PHI prior to the breach – A violation of the HIPAA Security Rule 45 C.F.R. § 164.308(a)(l)(ii)(A).

As a result of that failure, there was an impermissible disclosure of 3.5 million individual’s PHI, in violation of 45 C.F.R. § 164.502(a).

MIE chose to settle the case with OCR with no admission of liability. In addition to paying a financial penalty, MIE has agreed to adopt a corrective action plan that requires a comprehensive, organization-wide risk analysis to be conducted and a risk management plan to be developed to address all identified risks and reduce them to a reasonable and acceptable level.

“Entities entrusted with medical records must be on guard against hackers,” said OCR Director Roger Severino. “The failure to identify potential risks and vulnerabilities to ePHI opens the door to breaches and violates HIPAA.”

While the settlement releases MIE from further actions by OCR over the above violations of HIPAA Rules, MIE is not out of the woods yet. In December 2018, a multi-state lawsuit was filed against MIE by 12 state attorneys general over the breach.

The lawsuit alleged there was a failure to implement adequate security controls, that known vulnerabilities had not been corrected, encryption had not been used, security awareness training had not been provided to staff, and there were post-breach failures at MIE. That lawsuit has yet to be resolved. It could well result in a further financial penalty for MIE.

This is OCR’s second financial penalty of 2019. Earlier this month, a $3,000,000 settlement was agreed with Touchstone Medical Imaging to resolve multiple HIPAA violations, several of which were related to the delayed response to a data breach.

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