Class Action Lawsuit Claims UnityPoint Health Mislead Patients over Severity of Phishing Attack

A class action lawsuit has been filed in response to a data breach at UnityPoint Health that saw the protected health information (PHI) of 16,429 patients exposed and potentially obtained by unauthorized individuals.

As with many other healthcare data breaches, PHI was exposed as a result of employees falling for phishing emails. UnityPoint Health discovered the security breach on February 15, 2018 and sent breach notification letters to affected patients two months later, on or around April 16, 2018.

HIPAA-covered entities have up to 60 days following the discovery of a data breach to issue notifications to patients. Many healthcare organizations wait before issuing breach notifications and submitting reports of the incident to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights.

Waiting for two months to issue notifications to breach victims could be viewed as a violation of HIPAA Rules. While the maximum time limit for reporting was not exceeded, the HIPAA Breach Notification Rule requires notifications to be sent ‘without unnecessary delay.’ The HHS’ Office for Civil Rights has taken action over delayed breach notifications in the past, although no penalties have been issued when notification letters have been sent within 60 days of the discovery of a breach.

The notification letters explained to patients that some of their health information had been exposed. The substitute breach notice posted on the UnityPoint Health website in April said the types of information potentially accessed by the attackers included “patient names and one or more of the following: dates of birth, medical record numbers, treatment information, surgical information, diagnoses, lab results, medications, providers, dates of service and/or insurance information. For a limited number of impacted individuals, information that may have been viewed included Social Security Numbers or other financial information.”

UnityPoint Health told patients no reports had been received to suggest that their PHI had been accessed, stolen, or misused.

Patients were encouraged to “remain vigilant in reviewing your account statements for fraudulent or irregular activity”, although the burden of protecting against identity theft and fraud was passed on to patients. Affected individuals were not offered credit monitoring and identity theft protection services nor were they protected by an insurance policy covering misuse of their data.

The lawsuit was filed on May 4 by attorney Robert Teel against Iowa Health Systems Inc., the company that runs UnityPoint Health. Yvonne Mart Fox, of Middleton, WI, lead plaintiff in the class action lawsuit, has accused UnityPoint Health of delaying reporting the breach to regulators and patients. She also alleges UnityPoint Health “misrepresented the nature, breadth, scope, harm, and cost of the privacy breach.”

Fox claims she has suffered sleep deprivation as a direct result of the breach and experiences daily anger. She also claims to have had an increase in the number of automated calls to her cellphone and landline in 2018 and an increase in marketing and other spam emails, which have been attributed to the theft of her contact information.

Fox and other class members are seeking compensatory, punitive, and other damages.

Author: Steve Alder has many years of experience as a journalist, and comes from a background in market research. He is a specialist on legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA. Steve holds a B.Sc. from the University of Liverpool.