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OCR: Ensure Legacy Systems and Devices are Secured for HIPAA Compliance

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights has advised HIPAA-covered entities to assess the protections they have implemented to secure their legacy IT systems and devices.

A legacy system is any system that has one or more components that have been supplanted by newer technology and reached end-of-life. When software and devices reach end-of-life, support comes to an end, and patches are no longer issued to correct known vulnerabilities. That makes legacy systems and devices vulnerable to cyberattacks.

Healthcare organizations should be aware of the date when support will no longer be provided, and a plan should be developed to replace outdated software and devices; however, there are often valid reasons for continuing to use outdated systems and devices.

Legacy systems may work well and be well-tailored to an organization’s business model, so there may be a reluctance to upgrade to new systems that are supported. Upgrading to a newer system may require time, funds, and human resources that are not available, or it may not be possible to replace a legacy system without disrupting critical services, compromising data integrity, or preventing ePHI from being available.

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HIPAA-covered entities should ensure that all software, systems, and devices are kept fully patched and up to date, but in healthcare, there are often competing priorities and obligations. If the decision is made to continue using legacy systems and devices, it is essential for security to be considered and for safeguards to be implemented to ensure those systems and devices cannot be hacked. That is especially important if legacy systems and devices can be used to access, store, create, maintain, receive, or transmit electronic protected health information (ePHI).

It is not a violation of the HIPAA Rules to continue using software and devices that have reached the end of life, provided compensating controls are implemented to ensure ePHI is protected. “Despite their common use, the unique security considerations applicable to legacy systems in an organization’s IT environment are often overlooked,” said OCR in its cybersecurity newsletter, which would violate the HIPAA Rules.

In healthcare, there may be many legacy systems and devices in use that need to be protected. Healthcare organizations need to have full visibility into the legacy systems that reside in their organization, as if the IT department is unaware that legacy systems are in use, compensating controls will not be implemented to ensure they are appropriately protected.

It is vital for a comprehensive inventory to be created that includes all legacy systems and devices and for a security risk assessment to be performed on each system and device. “The HIPAA Security Rule requires covered entities and their business associates to conduct an accurate and thorough assessment of the potential risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of ePHI throughout their environment, including ePHI used by legacy systems,” explained OCR in its recent cybersecurity newsletter.

Risks must be identified, prioritized, and mitigated to reduce them to a low and acceptable level. Mitigations include upgrading to a supported version or system, contracting with a vendor to provide extended support, migrating the system to a supported cloud-based solution, or segregating the system from the network.

If HIPAA-covered entities choose to continue maintaining a legacy system existing security controls should be strengthened or compensating controls should be implemented. OCR says consideration should be given to the burdens of maintenance, as they may outweigh the benefits of continuing to use the legacy system and plans should be made for the eventual removal and replacement of the legacy system.

In the meantime, OCR suggests the following controls for improving security:

  • Enhance system activity reviews and audit logging to detect unauthorized activity, with special attention paid to security configurations, authentication events, and access to ePHI.
  • Restrict access to the legacy system to a reduced number of users.
  • Strengthen authentication requirements and access controls.
  • Restrict the legacy system from performing functions or operations that are not strictly necessary
  • Ensure backups of the legacy system are performed, especially if strengthened or compensating controls impact prior backup solutions.
  • Develop contingency plans that contemplate a higher likelihood of failure.
  • Implement aggressive firewall rules.
  • Implement supported anti-malware solutions.

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.