The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released its October Cybersecurity Newsletter last week with a focus on mobile devices. Given the amount of work conducted on mobile devices (odds are that at least some of you are reading this on a smart phone), the newsletter is practical for many in the health care industry. It is also timely in light of the increasing development and use of health apps. (For those developers interested in HIPAA and mobile devices, see our recent post here.)

The key HIPAA risk faced by those in the health care sector using mobile devices is the compromise of electronic protected health information (ePHI); a risk that is compounded by the portability and lack of robust security on these devices. In its newsletter, OCR advises organizations to take some important steps to ensure that ePHI is well-protected on mobile devices. According to OCR, organizations should:

  • Ensure that mobile devices are properly configured before accessing/storing ePHI
  • Train employees on the secure use of mobile devices and the risks of malware infecting mobile devices
  • Implement policies and procedures for mobile devices
  • Take certain IT-related precautions such as:
    • Automatic lock/logoff
    • Logon authentication
    • Regular software/security patch updates
    • Encryption, anti-virus and remote wipe capabilities
    • Use ONLY secure Wi-Fi connections
    • Use Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)
    • Limit downloads to only verified third-party apps

Depending on the size of your organization, some of these recommendations might sound a bit involved, but any efforts now can go a long way to saving you from a data breach. This is particularly true when considering that a breach involving health records can cost upwards of $350 per record.

The newsletter also contains links to much more detailed guidance and information for how to minimize cybersecurity risk on mobile devices.

Written by: Stephanie D. Willis

The Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights (OCR) reached its first settlement for a breach involving data regarding less than 500 individuals.  Under the December 2012 settlement, the Hospice of North Idaho (HONI) will pay OCR a $50,000 penalty to resolve allegations that it violated the HIPAA Security Rule.  The breach occurred in June 2010 with the theft of an unencrypted laptop computer containing the electronic protected health information (ePHI) of 441 HONI patients. OCR investigated the breach after HONI disclosed it in its annual report of breaches that involved less than 500 individuals required under the HITECH Act.

The Resolution Agreement subjects HONI to a two-year Corrective Action Plan (CAP), whereby it must closely monitor and promptly investigate any potential violations of HIPAA Privacy and Security policies and procedures by its employees.  If HONI determines that a violation (Reportable Event) occurred, it must report the details of the investigation and all corrective action taken to address the Reportable Event to OCR within 30 days. (We note that it is unclear whether the 30-day countdown starts from the date the Reportable Event occurred or from the conclusion of the investigation.)  Within 30 days of the end of each year the CAP is in place, HONI must notify OCR if no Reportable Events have occurred during the preceding year.

Providers may learn three lessons from the HONI resolution:

  1. OCR pays attention to the annual reports of breaches required under the Breach Notification Rule;
  2. no breach is “too small” for OCR enforcement action; and
  3. mobile device and laptop security is a continued concern for OCR.

Again, the risks related to the use of mobile devices like laptops, PDAs, and smartphones are well-known and have been addressed in previous Health Law & Policy Matters blog posts on “bring your own device” policies and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary resolution (also stemming from a self-reported breach).    As OCR Director Leon Rodriguez emphasized in the HONI resolution press release, “Encryption is an easy method for making lost information unusable, unreadable and undecipherable.” The HONI resolution shows that OCR will continue to address all breaches, large or small.