New Jersey Infertility Clinic Settles Data Breach Investigation with State and Pays $495,000 Penalty

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A New Jersey infertility clinic accused of violating HIPAA and New Jersey laws by failing to implement appropriate cybersecurity measures has settled the investigation with the state and will pay a $495,000 penalty.

Millburn, NJ-based Diamond Institute for Infertility and Menopause, LLC (Diamond) operates two healthcare facilities in New Jersey, one in New York, and provides consultancy services in Bermuda. Providing those services involves the collection, storage, and use of personal and protected health information (PHI).

Between August 2016 and January 2017, at least one unauthorized individual accessed Diamond’s network which contained the PHI of 14,663 patients, 11,071 of which were New Jersey residents.

As a HIPAA-covered entity, Diamond is required to implement technical, physical, and administrative safeguards to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of PHI. Diamond is also subject to New Jersey laws and is similarly required to implement reasonable and adequate safeguards to protect medical data from unauthorized access.

Diamond Investigated for Compliance with Federal and State Laws

The State of New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety Division of Consumer Affairs investigated Diamond over the data breach to determine compliance with federal and state laws. The investigation revealed Diamond had entered into a support contract with the managed service provider (MSP) Infoaxis Technologies in 2007, which including security and information technology services including maintaining its third-party server and workstations. The service agreement included third-party software for the management and reporting of audit logs intended to interpret triggers for event alerts.

Around March 2014, Diamond downgraded its support package with the MSP, resulting in a reduction in the services provided, although Diamond maintains there was no reduction in services between the two support agreements other than the amount of time included for on-site support services.

Prior to the breach occurring, Diamond’s HIPAA Privacy and Security Officer used a Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) service with a VPN to access the Diamond network, but because the VPN was blocked from the Bermuda office, the MSP provided a different method of access that involved opening a port in the firewall to allow RDP access, instead of using the VPN for authentication.

Between August 28, 2016 and January 14, 2017, a workstation in the Millburn office was accessed by an unauthorized individual on several occasions from a foreign IP address. The unauthorized access was detected and blocked on January 14, 2017. During the time the workstation was accessible, data on the device was not encrypted. The intruder therefore potentially accessed patient data including names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, and medical record numbers.

An investigation into the breach also revealed an intruder accessed Diamond’s third-party server which housed its electronic medical records within a password-protected SQL server using two compromised Diamond user accounts that had weak passwords. The investigation revealed weak security settings were in place for failed login attempts and password expiration.

While the EMR data was not compromised, the intruder was able to access PHI such as test results, ultrasound images, and clinical and post-operative notes. Diamond’s investigation was unable to confirm how access to the network was gained.

Multiple HIPAA Violations Uncovered

The state investigation into the data breach revealed business associate agreements were not in place prior to sharing ePHI with three business associates: Infoaxis, BMedTech, and Igenomix, in violation of the HIPAA Rules. Diamond was also alleged to have violated the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (CFA), HIPAA Security Rule, and HIPAA Privacy Rule by removing administrative and technological safeguards protecting PHI and ePHI, which allowed unauthorized individuals to gain access to its systems and ePHI for around five and a half months.

The CFA violations included misrepresentation of HIPAA practices in its privacy and security policy, a failure to secure its network leading to a data breach, and unconscionable commercial practices.

The settlement agreement lists failures to comply with twenty-nine provisions of the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules. Alleged violations include the failure to conduct a comprehensive risk assessment, failure to encrypt ePHI, failure to modify security measures to ensure reasonable protections for ePHI were maintained, failure to implement procedures for creating, changing, and modifying passwords, and a failure to verify the identity of individuals seeking access to ePHI.

Diamond disputes many of the claims made by the state but agreed to settle the case and pay a $495,000 financial penalty, which consists of $412,300 in civil penalties and $82,700 in investigation fees.

“Patients seeking fertility treatment rightly expect their healthcare providers to protect their privacy,” said Acting Attorney General Bruck. “Major cybersecurity lapses like the ones leading up to this data breach are unacceptable. Today’s settlement sends the message that such privacy lapses come with significant consequences.”

In addition to the financial penalty, Diamond is required to implement additional measures to improve data security, including the use of encryption to prevent unauthorized access to ePHI, implementing a comprehensive information security program, appointing a new HIPAA officer, providing additional training to staff on security policies, developing a written incident response plan, and improving logging, monitoring, access controls, password management, and implementing a risk assessment program.

“Inadequate data systems and protocols are every hacker’s dream,” said Division of Consumer Affairs Acting Director Sean P. Neafsey. “Companies that fail to comply with basic security requirements are an easy target, and we will not stand by as they violate our laws and expose clients’ sensitive information and make them vulnerable to identity theft.”

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.

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