Computers With Patient Data Stolen On Eve Of HIPAA Security Rules - InformationWeek

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Computers With Patient Data Stolen On Eve Of HIPAA Security Rules

New Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act security regulations take effect next week.

As the April 20 compliance deadline for HIPAA security regulations approaches, a California medical practice is dealing with the recent theft of two computers containing personal information for about 185,000 current and former patients.

Last week, the San Jose Medical Group notified patients that computers containing names, addresses, Social Security numbers, and insurance billing codes were stolen when its office was burglarized March 28. In a statement on its Web site, the group said the computers had been "stored behind locked doors that had been broken through." Patients were advised to contact the three major credit reporting agencies to place fraud alerts on their credit files. The group has about 60,000 current patients.

The theft of the computers happened just weeks before the compliance deadline for federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act security regulations mandating that health-care providers, health plans, and payment clearinghouses protect electronic health information.

While the regulations are "technology neutral" in that they don't specify technologies or products to safeguard the data, they do lay out rules for "adequate protection" of computer systems containing patient information, says Stanley Nachimson, senior technical adviser at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Office of HIPAA Standards. Those safeguards include physical, administrative, and technological protection of data.

Enforcement of the security regulations--like earlier HIPAA rules for privacy--will be complaint-driven, he says. Since the HIPAA privacy regulations, which identify what personal health information needs to be protected, took effect two years ago this month, there have been nearly 11,000 complaints filed to the federal government by patients and others. As of January, about 62% of those privacy-violation complaints had been resolved, according to CMS. The others are still being processed or have been turned over to the Justice Department for criminal investigation.

Penalties for violating the pending security rules will be $100 per violation up to a maximum of $25,000 per calendar year, Nachimson says.

Despite the measures the government is undertaking with HIPAA to help protect Americans' personal health information, the general public is still decidedly uneasy about the prospect of electronic health data replacing paper-based files, says Emily Stewart, a policy adviser at nonprofit group the Health Privacy Project.

A survey conducted earlier this year by Privacy and American Business and Harris Interactive showed that 70% of Americans are concerned that their personal health information could be disclosed because of weak data security, and 69% think electronic health records could result in the sharing of their health information without their knowledge. Sixty-five percent think patients will withhold information from doctors because of those concerns.

"Overcoming consumers' privacy fears is an obstacle in achieving a nationwide electronic health-record system," Stewart says.

HIPAA, which was passed by Congress in 1996, was written before the more recent federal push to have the health industry replace paper-based patient files with digital records. The Bush administration last year set a goal for most Americans to have electronic health records by 2014. The government estimates that billions of dollars can be saved annually in the United States by widespread IT deployments that can help reduce medical errors, costs, and waste.

CMS's Nachimson says current HIPAA regulations for privacy and the upcoming security rules offer a good foundation to protect patient data even as work unfolds to develop a national health-information infrastructure. However, as new issues emerge, such as legal questions regarding how patient data can be shared across state lines, Nachimson concedes that HIPAA or other government regulations "may need to be changed, although that hasn't been determined."

While the Bush administration has put wheels in motion for the development of a national health-data infrastructure, support for industrywide adoption of health-care IT is bipartisan. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., and Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Penn., are expected soon to introduce a bill to encourage the adoption of electronic health records and other IT by providing grants and increasing Medicare reimbursements for health-care providers that use such technologies.

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