Out-Of-Date, Unpatched Software Triggers HIPAA Security Sanction


Health plans, health care providers ealth care clearinghouses (covered entities) and their business associates need to watch for and protect protected health information (PHI) against security exposures from unpatched or unsupported software and other weaknesses in their data security protections as part of their compliance obligations under the Security Rules of the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA).

The need to monitor and address data security threats associated with unpatched or unsupported software is demonstrated by the December 9, 2014 announcement by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) that Anchorage Community Mental Health Services (ACMHS) will pay $150,000 and adopt a corrective action plan to correct deficiencies in its HIPAA compliance program resulting from unpatched and unsupported software.

OCR opened an investigation against the five-facility, nonprofit provider of behavioral health care services to children, adults, and families in Anchorage, Alaska after receiving notification from ACMHS of a breach of unsecured electronic protected health information (ePHI) affecting 2,743 individuals due to malware compromising the security of its information technology resources.

According to the OCR announcement of the ACMHS Resolution Agreement with OCR, OCR’s investigation revealed that ACMHS had adopted sample Security Rule policies and procedures in 2005, but failed to follow these procedures. Moreover, OCR found that the reported security incident directly resulted of ACMHS failing to identify and address basic risks, such as not regularly updating their IT resources with available patches and running outdated, unsupported software.

“Successful HIPAA compliance requires a common sense approach to assessing and addressing the risks to ePHI on a regular basis,” said OCR Director Jocelyn Samuels. “This includes reviewing systems for unpatched vulnerabilities and unsupported software that can leave patient information susceptible to malware and other risks.”

In an effort to promote awareness of the need to assess and monitor the security of ePHI by covered entities and business associates, OCR continues to encourage covered entities and business associates to conduct regular documented evaluations of the adequacy of their ePHI safeguards and systems. To aid in this process, OCR and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology have created a Security Rule Risk Assessment Tool available here to assist organizations that handle PHI in conducting a regular review of the administrative, physical and technical safeguards they have in place to protect the security of the information. Since OCR points to the Tool as a resource, covered entities and business associates should anticipate that their failure to identify and address any deficiencies in the areas identified by the tools as a potentially serious compliance issue. As a result, covered entities and business associates likely will want to take steps to ensure that their records include documented review of the adequacy of the security safeguards identified in the Tool. At the same time, covered entities and their business associates should not assume that the Tool adequately covers all potential HIPAA Security Rule exposures. OCR has made clear in this and other Resolution Agreements that HIPAA’s Security Rule requires ongoing monitoring and assessment of the adequacy of security in response to changes in software or system, emerging threats and other developments.

For Advice, Training & Other Resources

If you need assistance monitoring these and other regulatory policy, enforcement, litigation or other developments, or to review or respond to these or other workforce, benefits and compensation, performance and risk management, compliance, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer may be able to help.

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law, Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefit & Other Compensation Arrangements Group, Co-Chair and Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Welfare Plan Committee, Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Plans Committee, an ABA Joint Committee On Employee Benefits Council representative, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, ABA, and State Bar of Texas, Ms. Stamer has more than 25 years’ experience advising health plan and employee benefit, insurance, financial services, employer and health industry clients about these and other matters. Ms. Stamer has extensive experience advising and assisting health plans and insurers about ACA, and a wide range of other plan design, administration, data security and privacy and other compliance risk management policies.  Ms. Stamer also regularly represents clients and works with Congress and state legislatures, EBSA, IRS, EEOC, OCR and other HHS agencies, state insurance and other regulators, and others.   She also publishes and speaks extensively on health and other employee benefit plan and insurance, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, privacy, regulatory and public policy and other operations and risk management concerns. Her publications and insights appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications.

You can review other recent human resources, employee benefits and internal controls publications and resources and additional information about the employment, employee benefits and other experience of the Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, PC here. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile www.cynthiastamer.com or by registering to participate in the distribution of these and other updates on our HR & Employee Benefits Update distributions here including:

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NOTE:  This article is provided for educational purposes.  It is does not establish any attorney-client relationship nor provide or serve as a substitute for legal advice to any individual or organization.  Readers must engage properly qualified legal counsel to secure legal advice about the rules discussed in light of specific circumstances.

The following disclaimer is included to ensure that we comply with U.S. Treasury Department Regulations.  The Regulations now require that either we (1) include the following disclaimer in most written Federal tax correspondence or (2) undertake significant due diligence that we have not performed (but can perform on request).

ANY STATEMENTS CONTAINED HEREIN ARE NOT INTENDED OR WRITTEN BY THE WRITER TO BE USED, AND NOTHING CONTAINED HEREIN CAN BE USED BY YOU OR ANY OTHER PERSON, FOR THE PURPOSE OF (1) AVOIDING PENALTIES THAT MAY BE IMPOSED UNDER FEDERAL TAX LAW, or (2) PROMOTING, MARKETING OR RECOMMENDING TO ANOTHER PARTY ANY TAX-RELATED TRANSACTION OR MATTER ADDRESSED HEREIN.

©2014 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Limited, non-exclusive right to republished granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc. All other rights reserved.

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