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HIPAA and Ransomware: Healthcare Organizations Reminded of HIPAA Rules Relating to Ransomware

Following the recent WannaCry ransomware attacks, the Department of Health and Human Services has been issuing cybersecurity alerts and warnings to healthcare organizations on the threat of attack and steps that can be taken to reduce risk.

The email alerts were sent soon after the news of the attacks on the UK’s NHS first started to emerge on Friday May 12, and continued over the course of the week. The alerts provided timely and pertinent information for U.S. healthcare organizations allowing them to take rapid action to counter the threat.

While the Office for Civil Rights has previously sent monthly emails to healthcare organizations warning of new threats in its cybersecurity newsletters, the recent alerts were sent much more rapidly and frequently, with four email alerts and conference calls made with industry stakeholders alerting them to the imminent threat.

Whether this was a one off in response to a specific and imminent major threat or the HHS plans to issue more timely alerts remains to be seen. However, the rapid communication of the ransomware threat almost certainly helped many healthcare organizations take prompt action to reduce risk.

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Fortunately, attacks on organizations in the United States appear to have been limited, with the Department of Homeland Security saying fewer than 10 U.S. companies have reported being attacked.

In the email alerts, healthcare organizations were reminded of the need to implement data security measures to reduce the risk of malware and ransomware attacks. OCR also issued guidance on HIPAA specific to the threat from WannaCry ransomware.

OCR reiterated that a ransomware attack that involved the encryption of patients ePHI is presumed to be a HIPAA breach, reminding covered entities to report attacks within 60 days, as is required by the HIPAA Breach Notification Rule.

OCR also advised healthcare organizations that breach reports– and patient notifications – are required if data have been compromised that have not been encrypted by the entity to NIST specifications.

In the event of a breach, covered entities were told to contact their local FBI filed office, submit details of the incident to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center and report the incident to US-CERT. OCR also emphasized that reporting ransomware attacks to other federal organizations or law enforcement bodies does not constitute a HIPAA-compliant breach report. OCR must be notified of the incident separately.

Threat intelligence sharing can prevent other organizations suffering similar attacks and OCR encourages the sharing of cyber threat information. However, the HIPAA Privacy Rule does not permit the sharing of PHI. When cyber threat information is shared with federal agencies, law enforcement, or an Information Sharing and Analysis Organization (ISAO), covered entities must ensure that PHI is not shared. Doing so would be a HIPAA violation and could result in action being taken against the organization in question.

OCR also reminded organizations that compliance with the HIPAA Security Rule helps covered entities prepare for ransomware attacks and respond appropriately if systems are compromised and data are encrypted.

Further information on HIPAA and ransomware attacks can be found in an OCR fact sheet available on this link.

Healthcare organizations were also reminded that they can request an unauthenticated scan of their public IP addresses from the Department of Homeland Security.

US-CERT’s National Cybersecurity Assessment & Technical Services (NCATS) provides an objective third-party perspective on an organizations cybersecurity posture and can conduct a broad assessment scanning for known vulnerabilities at no cost to stakeholders. The service allows healthcare organizations to be proactive and take steps to reduce risk prior to exploitation by malicious individuals.  Requests can be made by emailing NCATS on [email protected]

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.