This blog has been following how requirements under the HIPAA/HITECH statutes and regulations for public disclosure of security breaches of Protected Health Information (“PHI”) have brought to light a continuing flow of breaches of PHI involving highly respected and sophisticated providers and insurers.

The giant Henry Ford Health System (“Henry Ford” or the “health system”) in Michigan has joined the march. On November 19, 1010, Henry Ford posted on its Web site a “Required Substitute Notice” (the “Notice”) under HIPAA/HITECH. The Notice discloses that the health system has notified and apologized to “affected patients” that their information related to prostate services received between 1997 and 2008 was affected by a breach of unsecured PHI. Henry Ford reported that it learned on September 24, 2010, that “an employee's laptop computer storing the information was stolen from an unlocked urology medical office.”

While no Social Security numbers, health insurance identification numbers or medical records were apparently stored on the stolen laptop, other elements of PHI were present on the laptop. To provide support for those affected by the PHI breach, as has been done by other providers and insurers, Henry Ford has responsibly offered a free year of identity monitoring, protection and remediation service to the potential victims.

There are a number of interesting aspects of the Notice itself. The Notice states that “[u]nder federal law, health care organizations are required to notify patients within 60 days of a breach of unsecured health information.” As stated in an earlier posting on this blog, the time frame for providers and insurers to give notice to affected individuals and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) of a PHI security breach involving 500 or more individuals is “without unreasonable delay and in no case later than 60 days from discovery of a breach.”

If the PHI breach was discovered by Henry Ford on September 24, 2010, the sixtieth day would be November 23, 2010. Therefore, that part of the notification requirement was clearly satisfied. It is a factual matter, however, as to whether, under the circumstances, the notification by the health system on or about the 53rd day met the other standard that notice was provided “without unreasonable delay.”

Another aspect of the Notice was that it did not disclose the number of affected patients. A visit today to the HHS Web site that lists breaches of unsecured PHI affecting 500 or more individuals reveals that the Henry Ford security breach is not yet posted. Since the required time frame for the health system to notify the HHS is the same as that for notifying affected patients, the HHS Web site should soon post such information.

Perhaps one of the most concerning aspects of the security breach is the report by Henry Ford that “[w]hile the laptop was password protected, the patient information stored on the computer could potentially be viewed on the computer.” Chief Privacy Officer of Henry Ford, Meredith Phillips, was quoted as saying that, to prevent future patient information breaches, “employees will be re-educated in the steps necessary to protect patient information stored on computers.” She also stated that “the process will be improved for how employees obtain a laptop computer for work purposes.”

Henry Ford is taking reasonable measures to forestall another similar incident. Clearly, however, current technological security protection practices, such as passwords, even if followed as in the Henry Ford case, are not sufficient to avoid a security breach. Unfortunately, re-education of employees and adding new limitations on issuance of laptops will not protect providers or insurers against negligence, rogue employees who may download PHI on their own computers,

outright thieves within or without the organization, computer hacking and a host of other threats.

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.