Yesterday, the Attorney General of the State of Connecticut filed suit against the Connecticut subsidiary of Health Net, charging it with violations of the privacy and security requirements of HIPAA. The action, filed yesterday in the United States District Court in Connecticut, comes on the heels of a security breach involving medical records and Social Security numbers. The suit also names United Health Group Inc. and Oxford Health Plans LLC, who acquired Health Net of Connecticut but who were not involved in the data breach.
If you forgot, last year the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH), for the first time authorized individual state attorneys’ general to enforce the security and data privacy regulations under HIPAA, and this appears to be the first such action.
The lawsuit claims that Health Net in Connecticut failed to provide adequate security for the medical and financial records of hundreds of thousands of enrolled individuals, and failed to notify them promptly in connection with the breach. The breach, which took place last May, involved the disappearance of a computer hard drive. Health Net eventually reported the breach, posting a notice on its website and starting a staggered process of mailing letters to consumers November 30, 2009, almost six months after the security breach. For those of you involved in the collection, handling, maintenance, or use of personal, financial and medical information covered by HIPAA, new federal rules under the HITECH Act require “timely” notification of certain breaches, rules that have a compliance deadline of February 22, 2010.
Health Net attributed the delay in reporting to its inability to determine exactly what was on the computer hard drive that disappeared, thus not being sure if a notice was even required. One can only surmise that the mere fact that Health Net didn’t know what information was contained on a removable computer hard drive made its reasoning less than satisfactory to the Connecticut State Attorney General. Although Health Net appears to have conceded that the data was not encrypted, it did indicate that the data should not be visible without the use of specific software. However, Kroll Inc., a computer forensic firm retained by Health Net to investigate the breach, reported the data could be viewable with commonly available software.
Privacy, security and data protection of non-public, personally identifiable and sensitive information (e.g., health, financial data) are increasingly subject to stricter rules and regulations. The use of the Internet and web, making digital information more susceptible to undetected duplication, transmission and access – not to mention the obvious fact that carrying millions of pages of records would be impossible, while walking out with a single hard disk or CD-ROM on which the same data and information has been scanned or stored in digital form – can be virtually undetectable.
Do you know of any law firm that has a team of privacy and data security, identity theft and data breach legal professionals? A firm that has health care, financial services and insurance specialists, as well as lawyers steeped in digital technology, information security and e-commerce? A firm that has transactional, regulatory compliance and policy-oriented lawyers who can audit current practices and policies, assist in developing mechanisms needed to satisfy regulatory requirements, and provide legal support to help avoid a legal problem, and also regulatory, compliance and litigation professionals who can represent and defend clients if a problem arises? Now you do – Rimon. If you need more information, contact me, Joseph I. (“Joe”) Rosenbaum, or Mark Melodia or Paul Bond, or the Rimon attorney with whom you regularly work, if you need legal advice, information or support on this subject.