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EmblemHealth Fined $575,000 by NY Attorney General for HIPAA Breach

A 2016 mailing error by EmblemHealth that saw the Health Insurance Claim Numbers of 81,122 plan members printed on the outside of envelopes has resulted in a $575,000 settlement with the New York Attorney General.

While all mailings include a unique patient identifier on the envelope, in this case the potential for harm was considerable as Health Insurance Claim numbers are formed using the Social Security numbers of plan members.

Announcing the settlement, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman explained that Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Rules require HIPAA covered entities to implement administrative, physical, and technical safeguards to ensure the confidentiality of patients’ and plan members’ protected health information.

The error that saw Social Security numbers exposed violated HIPAA Rules. EmblemHealth failed to comply with “many standards and procedural specifications” required by HIPAA. Attorney General Schneiderman also said that printing Social Security numbers on the outside of envelopes violated New York General Business Law § 399-ddd(2)(e).

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In addition to the $575,000 settlement, EmblemHealth is required to adopt a robust corrective action plan that requires a comprehensive risk analysis to be conducted related to the mailing of policy documents. The results of that risk analysis must be reported to the Attorney General’s office within 180 days. Policies and procedures related to mailings must also be reviewed and updated based on the findings of the risk analysis.

EmblemHealth must catalogue, review, and monitor mailings and ensure that all employees involved in mailings receive appropriate training. They must also be instructed to report any violations of the HIPAA Minimum Necessary Standard to EmblemHealth officials to allow prompt action to be taken manage risks to plan members. EmblemHealth is also required to report all security incidents to the Attorney General’s office for a period of 3 years from the date of the settlement.

According to Attorney General Schneiderman, New York has “weak and outdated security laws” which he has attempted to address by introducing the ‘Stop Hacks and Improve Electronic Data Security (SHIELD) Act’ in November 2017. There will now be a further push to get the SHIELD Act passed. Schneiderman claims the SHIELD Act will improve protections for state residents. Businesses will also be held accountable for data breaches that result in customers’ personal data being exposed.

“The careless handling of social security numbers is never acceptable,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “New Yorkers need to be able to trust that companies entrusted with their private information will guard it appropriately. This starts with good governance—which is why my office will continue to push for stronger security laws and hold businesses accountable for protecting their customers’ personal data.”

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.