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Email Error Exposed the PHI of 8,000 Members of FirstCare Health Plans

Texas-based First Care Health Plans is notifying more than 8,000 plan members that some of their personal information may have been impermissibly disclosed as a result of automated reports being accidentally emailed to an incorrect recipient.

The daily reports were automatically generated and sent to an email distribution list. The reports contained medical requests which included members’ names, member ID numbers, procedure codes, descriptions of treatments, authorization numbers, and names of treating providers.

On August 15, 2018, the FirstCare IT security team became aware that the reports had been sent to an external email address in error and the emails had not been encrypted. An investigation into the incident revealed the reports had been sent over a period of 17 months, starting on March 22, 2017. The reports contained the protected health information of 8,056 plan members.

FirstCare explained in its breach notice that various security solutions had been deployed to monitor for unauthorized access, acquisition, and unauthorized use of ePHI, but they had failed to identify the misdirected emails.

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Upon discovery of the error, the incorrect recipient was removed from the distribution list and a full review was conducted of all other automated reports to ensure similar errors had not been made. FirstCare has now developed a new protocol to ensure the recipients of active reports are regularly monitored and new auditing parameters have been implemented related to change controls.

FirstCare has taken several steps to contact the user of the email account and secure the ePHI. Emails were sent to the account in an attempt to get the user to make contact, but those attempts failed.  FirstCare also engaged the U.S Federal Government to investigate and help identify the owner of the email account to minimize the potential for harm.

“We have not received any indication that the information has been accessed or used by an unauthorized individual,” explained FirstCare in its substitute breach notice. Since it is not possible to confirm whether there has been an impermissible disclosure of ePHI, FirstCare is offering to reimburse all affected patients for one year of credit monitoring services through LifeLock.

Author: Steve Alder is the editor-in-chief of HIPAA Journal. Steve is responsible for editorial policy regarding the topics covered on HIPAA Journal. He is a specialist on healthcare industry legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA and other related legal topics. Steve has developed a deep understanding of regulatory issues surrounding the use of information technology in the healthcare industry and has written hundreds of articles on HIPAA-related topics.