Federal Agencies Take Aim At Businesses, Benefit Plan Fiduciaries & Service Providers & Others With Lax CyberSecurity & CyberBreach Compliance; Build Defenses By Strengthening Internal & External Controls & Risk Managment

Businesses, their employee benefit plan fiduciaries, their employer and other sponsors, their record keepers, financial advisors and other service providers and other business partners face growing pressure to shore up cyber security and cyber breach compliance and other safeguards to defend against a slew of  new and ongoing federal cyber security and breach regulatory and enforcement the Biden-Harris Administration is rolling out in its effort to stem the rising tide of  cybersecurity incidents.

Agencies Targeting Businesses, US Entities & Their Leaders For CyberSecurity & CyberBreach Regulation & Enforcement

On October 6, 2021, Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco announced plans to civilly prosecute federal government contractors that fail to follow required cyber security standards under the False Claims Act under a new Civil Cyber-Fraud Initiative to be led by DOJ’s Civil Division’s Commercial Litigation Branch, Fraud Section.  While adding new exposures to the already substantial exposures  federal government contractors and grant recipients already face for failing to comply with applicable cybersecurity and cyberbreach notifications under federal and state laws, the Civil Cyber-Fraud Initiative also provides more evidence that the Biden-Harris Administration is serious about moving forward on its broader strategy to stem the recurrent waves of disruptive cyber breaches and other security incidents buffeting U.S. public and private institutions and citizens by ramping up cybersecurity regulations, oversight and enforcement against all U.S. organizations.   See e.g., New DOJ Civil Cyber-Fraud Initiative Pressures Federal Contractors & Grant Recipients To Tighten Cybersecurity Controls, Training & Other Safeguards. May 12, 2021 Executive Order on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity; July 28, 2021 National Security Memorandum on Improving Cybersecurity for Critical Infrastructure Control Systems.

The DOJ Civil Cyber-Fraud Initiative is the latest in a growing list of new regulatory and enforcement programs placing pressure on U.S. businesses and their leaders to get serious about cybersecurity.  Examples of some of the more far reaching of these new or continuing programs include:

  • Government Contractors. 

Under the Civil Cyber-Fraud Initiative, DOJ plans to use the False Claims Act to prosecute pursue cyber security related fraud by government contractors and grant recipients.  According to DOJ, the initiative will hold accountable entities or individuals that put U.S. information or systems at risk by knowingly providing deficient cyber security products or services, knowingly misrepresenting their cyber security practices or protocols, or knowingly violating obligations to monitor and report cyber security incidents and breaches. Federal contractors and grant recipients submitting claims for federal funds will be considered to have filed a false claim in violation of the False Claims Act if their cyber security and cyber breach practices are not compliant with applicable federal requirements when the payment is requested.

  • Federal Health Program Participating Health Care Providers And Plans. 

The DOJ Cyber-Fraud Initiative follows a similar interpretation of the Department of Health & Human Services (“HHS”) Office Inspector General (“OIG”) about the cybersecurity and cyberbreach compliance requirements health care providers and health plan issuers participating in Medicare and certain other federally funded health care programs (“Medicare Participating Providers”) are accountable to meet under the Conditions of Participation for those programs.  HHS OIG’s construction of these Conditions of Participation as including cybersecurity and cyberbreach compliance signs that Medical Participating Providers with deficient cybersecurity practices now may risk program disqualification and False Claims Act liability along with their already well-known exposure to civil monetary penalties under the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (“HIPAA”) protected health information privacy, security and data breach rules.

  • Health & Other Employee Benefit Plans. 

Health plans and other employee benefit plans, their fiduciaries, record keepers and service providers also face growing cybersecurity responsibilities and risks.  While HHS Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) continues to clarify and expand its interpretation, investigation and enforcement of HIPAA privacy, security and data breach rules against health plans, health care providers, health care clearinghouses and their business associates, the Department of Labor Employee Benefit Security Administration is turning up the heat on employee benefit plan fiduciaries to prudently protect their employee benefit plan assets and participants against cyberthreats.

On April 14, 2021, the Department of Labor Employee Benefit Security Administration (“EBSA”) made official its interpretation of the duty of prudence applicable to employee benefit plan fiduciaries under Section 404 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”) includes a duty for ERISA-covered employee benefit plan fiduciaries to take “appropriate precautions” to mitigate risks to plan participants and assets from both internal and external cybersecurity threats. The April 14 announcement makes official EBSA’s interpretation of the duty of prudence applicable to fiduciaries of ERISA-covered employee benefit plans as extending to a duty to act prudently to safeguard plan assets and plan participants against cybersecurity threats.

Concern about cyberthreats to private employee benefit plans covered by ERISA, their participants and beneficiaries has soared as massive data breaches  Federal Thrift Savings Plan, Anthem, Capital Onethe Public Employees Retirement Association of New Mexico and other employee benefit plans, their vendors and service providers increasingly have impacted millions of employee benefit plans, their accounts and participants.

While Congress chose to subject health plans to the detailed health privacy, security and breach rules of HIPAA and financial and certain other employee benefit plan service providers to consumer financial disclosure and data information security requirements of laws like Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act, and even employers and others conducting background and other credit checks to the  Fair Credit Reporting Act, growing awareness of the cyberthreat to employee benefits has not prompted Congress to date to extend those laws or otherwise to enact express statutory requirements for employee benefit plans and their fiduciaries.  However, private litigants and others increasingly have speculated that a fiduciary duty to safeguard plan asset against cyberthreats might be subsumed in the obligation of fiduciaries under Section 404 of ERISA at all times to act with “the care, skill, prudence, and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent man acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use in the conduct of an enterprise of a like character and with like aims.” See, e.g., See Record $16M Anthem HIPAA Settlement Signals Need to Tighten Your Health Plan HIPAA Compliance & Risk Management.

While EBSA has worked to formulate its recently announced positions, private litigants increasingly have begun debating the applicability and effect of ERISA on cyberbreaches involving ERISA regulated plans.  See e.g., In re Anthem, Inc. Data Breach Litig., No. 15-CV-04739-LHK, 2015 WL 7443779, at *1 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 24, 2015)(holding Anthem entitled under ERISA to remove claims to federal court and refusing employee benefit plan participants’ motion to remand to state court state claims arising from data breach); In re Anthem, Inc. Data Breach Litig., No. 15-MD-02617-LHK, 2016 WL 3029783 (N.D. Cal. May 27, 2016)(refusing to dismiss participant claims against non-Anthem defendants for lack of standing), motion reconsideration denied In re Anthem, Inc. Data Breach Litig., No. 15-CV-04739-LHK, 2016 WL 324386 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 27, 2016); Bartnett v. Abbott Lab’ys, No. 20-CV-02127, 2021 WL 428820, at *5 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 8, 2021) (dismissing breach of fiduciary duty claim based on inadequate evidence); In re: Premera Blue Cross Customer Data Sec. Breach Litig., No. 3:15-MD-2633-SI, 2017 WL 539578, at *21 (D. Or. Feb. 9, 2017). While mostly unsuccessful to date for procedural or factual sufficiency reasons, the preemption issues argued in many of these cases support concerns that under the proper circumstances ERISA could apply to breaches involving plans or their participants.  As these and other actions continue to wind their way through the courts, EBSA also has begun to acknowledge that ERISA plan fiduciaries duties of prudence include cybersecurity responsibilities.

EBSA’s first official recognition of a cybersecurity responsibility by plan fiduciaries appears in the Default Electronic Disclosure by Employee Pension Benefit Plans Under ERISA Final Rule (the “Electronic Disclosure Rule”), which took effect July 27, 2020 . In the discussion of its requirements regarding website-based electronic disclosures in Subpart (e)(3), the Electronic Disclosure Rule requires that “[T]he administrator must take measures reasonably calculated to ensure that the website protects the confidentiality of personal information relating to any covered individual.”  Similarly, the requirements for using e-mail to provide electronic disclosures in Subsection (k)(4) of the Electronic Disclosure Rule require the plan administrator to take “measures reasonably calculated to protect the confidentiality of personal information relating to the covered individual.”  While recognizing these cyber security responsibilities in the Electronic Disclosure Rule, however,  EBSA explained in the Preamble to the Electronic Disclosure Rule that it decided not to include more cumbersome cybersecurity requirements in the Electronic Disclosure Rule out of concern over the cost and other burdens of such requirements.  Nevertheless, the Electronic Disclosure Rule imposed a responsibility by plan fiduciaries of employee benefit plans making electronic disclosures to ensure that electronic recordkeeping systems have in place reasonable controls, adequate records management practice, and other measures calculated to protect Personally Identifiable Information.

EBSA’s April 14, 2021 reflects EBSA now views the fiduciary responsibilities of ERISA-covered employee benefit plan fiduciaries generally as including the responsibility to take “appropriate precautions” to mitigate risks to plan participants and assets from both internal and external cybersecurity threats. Beyond acknowledging a duty to take prudent steps to protect plans assets and participants against internal and external cybersecurity threats, EBSA also shared the following three resources to help plan sponsors, fiduciaries and participants to safeguard benefit plans and personal information against emerging cyber threats:

  • Tips for Hiring a Service Provider: Helps plan sponsors and fiduciaries prudently select a service provider with strong cybersecurity practices and monitor their activities, as ERISA requires.
  • Cybersecurity Program Best Practices: Assists plan fiduciaries and record-keepers in their responsibilities to manage cybersecurity risks.
  • Online Security Tips: Offers plan participants and beneficiaries who check their retirement accounts online basic rules to reduce the risk of fraud and loss.
  • Participants in Securities Markets, Market Infrastructure Providers & Vendors. 

Meanwhile the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) also has made clear its expectation that all firms participating in the securities markets, market infrastructure providers and vendors will appropriately monitor, assess and manage their cybersecurity risk profiles, including their operational resiliency. Consistent with the shared understanding of best cybersecurity practices shared with the agencies, the SEC guidance makes clear its market involved and impacting regulated entities are accountable for maintaining and enforcing appropriate internal and external controls to prevent, detect and redress cybersecurity threats, including appropriate board governance and risk management, access rights and controls, data loss prevention,mobile security, incident response and resiliency, vendor management, training and awareness and other practices.  See  SEC Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations Cybersecurity and Resiliency Observations.  Recently announced enforcement actions demonstrate that the SEC is acting on its promise to go after SEC regulated entities that breach these expectations.  See, e.g., SEC Announces Three Actions Charging Deficient Cybersecurity Procedures.

These and other recently announced federal regulatory and enforcement developments send a clear message to businesses and their leadership, employee benefit plan sponsors, fiduciaries, record keepers and other vendors, SEC securities market involved organizations and others to clean up their cybersecurity compliance and risk management.  Beyond the governmental enforcement risks these developments signal, these and other emerging regulatory developments provide added fuel for the already substantial private litigant and government complaints, investigations and prosecutions against businesses, their leaders, their employee benefit plan fiduciaries, record keepers and other service providers,and others.   and their leaders unable to defend the adequacy of their cybersecurity related practices.

Raise Cybersecurity Compliance & Defenses To Mitigate Risks & Liabilities

In the face of these developments, all businesses, employee benefit plan fiduciaries, their employer and other sponsors, record keepers and other vendors and their leaders should prioritize cybersecurity compliance, risk management, oversight and controls.  As part of these efforts, organizations and their leaders should move quickly to position themselves to defend against potential investigation and enforcement risks created by these emerging policies. These efforts should seek to ensure compliance with all applicable statutory, regulatory and contractual requirements as well as institutionalize the necessary operational controls to protect systems, data and operations from cyber breaches and other threats, to detect and redress cyber events promptly, and to ensure that the organization otherwise can demonstrate both their compliance efforts, as well as their timely prudent detection, investigation, reporting, mitigation and remediation in response to actual or suspected cyber threats or other compliance breaches.

Efforts should begin by taking carefully crafted, well-documented documented steps to prudently evaluate and strengthen  cybersecurity and breach safeguards and compliance, as well as prudently to assess and verify those of their vendors and others involved with their employee benefit plans or their administration within the scope of attorney-client privilege.

Assessments should take into account all existing required statutory, regulatory, and contractual controls and practices, documentation and other procedures.  In addition, organizations should consider the advisability of adopting other “best practice” safeguards or actions taking into account relevant agency guidance and resources,  government or other contracts, other industry or related standards, known and suspected breaches, “red flags” and threats, their own, their vendor and business partner and other risk profiles and experience, and other factors likely to be viewed as prudent under the circumstances.

In assessing, designing and administering the cybersecurity processes, organizations and their leaders should give due attention to assessing and addressing the adequacy of their internal and external controls to ensure the adequacy of their systems, processes, oversight and response practices and capabilities as of the time of the assessment and on an ongoing basis.  Beyond establishing required policies and formal controls, organization should ensure that their organizations have in place the necessary policies and practices to monitor and control cyberthreats arising from conduct and risks created by employees and other internal workforce, vendors and other parties interacting with the business and its operations.  As part of these efforts, most organizations will need to evaluate their contractual obligations and requirements for vendors, suppliers and others interacting with their businesses. Beyond general contractual compliance obligations, organizations should weigh requiring contractors, suppliers and other business partners to make specific commitments to maintain and monitor compliance and other risks, to provide timely notice and reports, to cooperate with audits and investigations necessary or advisable to respond to private or government complaints, government or other investigation, reporting or other requirements, their own compliance and risk assessments, audits and investigations and other compliance and risk management efforts.  Organizations also should give careful attention and review the adequacy of protections and responsibilities arising from contractual cybersecurity and breach notice, investigation, cooperation, indemnification,  insurance and other associated protections and cooperation.

Organizations also should consider establishing and administering processes for independent monitoring of regulatory, news, and other reports that could provide early warning of potential cybersecurity weaknesses, threats and breaches.

All processes should include appropriate governance, oversight and reporting to provide for ongoing monitoring and oversight necessary to identify and respond to evolving risks arising in the course of their operations as well as consistent practices for carefully documenting their compliance and risk management compliance efforts.

Because of the frequently high cost of breach investigation, response and mitigation, most organizations will want to consider securing cyber liability or other coverage, require vendors and other business partners to provide cyber liability indemnifications backed up with insurance or other adequate assurance of their ability to fulfill these financial responsibilities.

 More Information

We hope this update is helpful. For more information about or assistance with these or other workforce, internal controls and compliance or other legal, management or public policy developments, please contact the author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer via e-mail or via telephone at (214) 452 -8297.

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About the Author

Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years of health industry and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications.

Scribe for the ABA JCEB Annual Agency Meeting with HHS-OCR, and author of the “Medical Privacy” Chapter in the BNA/ERISA Litigation Treatise, the “Other Torts Chapter” in the BNA/ABA E-Heath & Other Torts Treatise, “Privacy and the Pandemic Workshop” for the Association of State and Territorial Health Plans, as well as a multitude of other highly regarded data privacy and security, workforce and health care change and crisis management and other highly regarded publications and presentations, Ms. Stamer is widely recognized for her decades of pragmatic, leading edge work, scholarship and thought leadership on health and other privacy and data security and other health industry legal, public policy and operational concerns.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer’s work throughout her 30 plus year career has focused heavily on working with private and public employer, health care and managed care, health and other employee benefit plan, insurance and financial services and other public and private organizations and their technology, data, and other service providers and advisors domestically and internationally with legal and operational compliance and risk management, performance and workforce management, regulatory and public policy and other legal and operational concerns.  In the course of this work, she has had extensive involvement in the design, administration and defense of payroll, employee benefit, insurance, securities, trade secret and other confidential information and other internal and external record and data systems and processes as well as investigation, reporting, redress and mitigation of cyber and other incidents.

As a part of this work, she has continuously and extensively worked with domestic and international health and other employee benefit plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries, administrators, and insurers; managed care and insurance organizations; hospitals, health care systems, clinics, skilled nursing, long term care, rehabilitation and other health care providers and facilities; medical staff, accreditation, peer review and quality committees and organizations; billing, utilization management, management services organizations, group purchasing organizations; pharmaceutical, pharmacy, and prescription benefit management and organizations; consultants; investors; EHR, claims, payroll and other technology, billing and reimbursement and other services and product vendors; products and solutions consultants and developers; investors; managed care organizations, self-insured health and other employee benefit plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries, administrators and service providers, insurers and other payers, health industry advocacy and other service providers and groups and other health and managed care industry clients as well as federal and state legislative, regulatory, investigatory and enforcement bodies and agencies.  She also has extensive experience dealing with OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, Department of Labor, IRS, HHS, DOD, FTC, SEC, CDC and other public health, Department of Justice and state attorneys’ general and other federal and state agencies; JCHO and other accreditation and quality organizations; private litigation and other federal and state health care industry actions: regulatory and public policy advocacy; training and discipline; enforcement;  and other strategic and operational concerns.

American Bar Association (ABA) International Section Life Sciences Committee Vice Chair, a Scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) Annual OCR Agency Meeting, current RPTE Welfare Benefit Committee Co-Chair and former Chair of its Fiduciary Responsibility, Plan Terminations and Distributions and Defined Contribution Plan Committees, a former JCEB Council Representative, Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, former SHRM Consultants Board and Region IV Chair, former Texas Association of Business Board, BACPAC Board and Dallas Chapter Chair, former Vice President and Executive Director of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, past Board President of Richardson Development Center (now Warren Center) for Children Early Childhood Intervention Agency, past North Texas United Way Long Range Planning Committee Member, and past Board Member and Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas.

Ms. Stamer also shares her extensive publications and thought leadership as well as leadership involvement in a broad range of other professional and civic organizations. For more information about Ms. Stamer or her health industry and other experience and involvements, see www.cynthiastamer.com or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

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