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Colleagues In Cuffs: When Employees Steal Patient Records

The Queens County DA recently arrested two Jamaica Hospital employees for stealing patient data, a lucrative crime occurring at hospitals across the nation.

The Queens, N.Y., district attorney recently charged two employees of Jamaica Hospital Medical Center with illegally accessing emergency room patients' medical records and personal identification information, and selling that data to individuals who then solicited services such as outpatient care or legal assistance -- sometimes while patients were still in the ER.

“These defendants are accused of blatantly violating their HIPAA obligations and illegally trolling through confidential patient records. Their alleged actions led to patients who were seeking treatment for injuries unwittingly being victimized again with the illegal release of their personal information and medical records," said DA Richard Brown, in a statement.

Defendants Maritza Amador, 44, and Dache Prawl, 45, were registrars at the Queens, N.Y., hospital's ER. Allegedly the duo illegally accessed personal information, including Social Security numbers and medical data, and passed that information to people who falsely represented themselves as representatives of the hospital to patients. These individuals offered transportation to outpatient therapy, attorney services related to car accident injuries, and follow-up medical treatment, the DA charges. They were released without bail and their next court date is May 20, the Queens County DA's office told InformationWeek.

[ Do you know where your data is? Read Healthcare Data Security: Focus On 'Business Associates'.]

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the regulations that have grown up around it set high standards. Yet this is not the first -- and, no doubt, won't be the last -- time employees allegedly stole patient data.

In May 2013, a physician and office worker reportedly quit Pensacola, Fla.-based Sight and Sun Eyeworks without notice; they allegedly took with them 9,000 patient records and Social Security numbers, which they used to reschedule patients' appointments at their new practice, local media reported.  

In San Francisco, a city employee allegedly sent the confidential data of about 2,500 Medi-Cal recipients to her home computer in an effort to combat her dismissal for "poor performance." The worker's attorneys and union representatives also saw the data, which included patient information and Social Security numbers. In another case, a former benefits clerk for United Healthcare Workers West was sentenced to 12 years and four months in prison for stealing the data of about 30,000 union employees of Kaiser Permanente in California. Crooks used the data to buy merchandise valued at more than $1 million, according to a published report.

A Miami respiratory therapist reportedly sold patients' personal information for up to $150 per person; buyers then used the data to illegally file and claim patients' tax returns, Florida media said. Tallahassee Memorial Hospital offered identity protection services to more than 100 patients after discovering a hospital employee illegally accessed data for a fraudulent tax scheme.

Despite many instances of malicious breaches, 75% of healthcare organizations believe employee negligence is their biggest security concern, according to the Fourth Annual Ponemon Report on Patient Privacy and Data Security. In 2013, 12% of organizations reported a malicious insider breached patient security, compared with 14% in both 2012 and 2011, the research firm said. The average cost of a data breach last year? Almost $2 million, down slightly from the prior year, Ponemon estimated.

Healthcare organizations will spend about $70 billion on security in 2017, a whopping 75% increase from $40 billion in 2012, according to the Boyd Company. Yet protecting data from greedy, careless, or disgruntled employees is, in some ways, more challenging than safeguarding records from external threats.

IT departments must ensure users only access records necessary for their roles and responsibilities, promptly changing authorizations when an employee's job changes and cutting off all access when an employee leaves the organization.

In addition, managers, colleagues, and human resource departments -- as well as monitoring tools and alarms -- must put extra focus on unhappy employees. A mindboggling 85% of employees are not satisfied with their jobs and only 13% are actively engaged, according to Gallup's "State of the Global Workplace" report. Of those dissatisfied employees, 24% are "actively disengaged," meaning they proactively undermine colleagues' work and, perhaps, help themselves to patient data to pad their bank accounts or wreak havoc on their employer.

Installing firewalls and locking down databases doesn't work if thieves have the keys or designed the infrastructure. To secure patient data, IT must ensure information is safe from everyone, even colleagues in the department across the hall. 

Medical data breaches seem to show up on the 6 o'clock news almost every week. If you think it wouldn't happen to you -- or the financial impact will be minor -- think again. Download the Healthcare Data Breaches Cost More Than You Think report today. (Free registration required.)

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Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Writer