This blog has been following the continuing flow of security breaches of Protected Health Information ("PHI") and how affected providers and insurers have been responding to their discovery. The University of Tennessee Medical Center ("UTMC" or the "hospital") based in Knoxville has apparently joined in the march.
On November 29, 2010, Angela Starke wrote an article entitled "Patients uneasy about possible security breach at UT Medical Center" that was posted on volunteertv.com. In the article, Ms. Starke reported that UTMC had announced that 8,000 patients' medical and identity information may have been compromised. As part of her article, Ms. Starke reproduced in full the letter attributed to the Privacy Officer of UTMC that was sent to affected patients by the hospital (the "Letter"). The following was stated in the UTMC Letter: "Please note we have no reason to believe that any of your personal information has actually been accessed or inappropriately used. However, out of an abundance of caution, we want to make you aware of the incident."
What is interesting about the UTMC event is that the hospital apparently has not seen the incident as sufficiently newsworthy to publish the UTMC Letter on its website in the news section or elsewhere. In contrast, a recent post on this blog discussed a PHI security breach issue at Henry Ford Health System in Michigan ("HFHS"). That post raised questions as to the thoroughness of the report that HFHS had placed on its website relative to the incident.
Nonetheless, HFHS did at least disclose the matter on its website. UTMC has chosen not to do so. The article by Ms. Starke would indicate that patients who received notices from UTMC about the PHI incident considered it to be somewhat more of a concern than the hospital did, as evidenced by UTMC’s failure to make a disclosure on its website.
A visit today to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service ("HHS") website which lists reported breaches of unsecured PHI incidents affecting 500 or more individuals reveals that the UTMC matter is now posted. Even that posting, however, is defective. The list reflects the "Date of Breach" of the UTMC event of "Improper Disposal of Paper Records" as "2009-09-23." Obviously the year should be "2010" not the "2009" date listed. It is unclear whether the hospital reported the wrong year to HHS or that HHS incorrectly transcribed it.
As this blog has reported earlier, the public disclosures required by HIPAA/HITECH for breaches respecting PHI make providers and insurers vulnerable to embarrassment, criticism and diminished reputation that may actually overshadow the significant legal costs and statutory consequences of the breach itself.
To this end, providers and insurers must continue to heighten their efforts to avoid PHI security breaches as a primary objective. If they do occur, prompt, decisive and proactive action is required to maximize damage control and rehabilitate relations with clients and the public. Such action should include posting of the unfortunate event on the entity’s website.