OCR Issues Guidance on the Correct Response to a Cyberattack

Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights issued new guidance to covered entities on the correct response to a cyberattack. OCR issued a quick response checklist and accompanying infographic to explain the correct response to a cyberattack and the sequence of actions that should be taken.

Responding to an ePHI Breach

Preparation is key. Organizations must have response and mitigation procedures in place and contingency plans should exist that can be implemented immediately following the discovery a cyberattack, malware or ransomware attack.

The first stage of the response is to take immediate action to prevent any impermissible disclosure of electronic protected health information. In the case of a network intrusion, unauthorized access to the network – and data – must be blocked and steps taken to prevent data from being exfiltrated.

Healthcare organizations may have staff capable of responding to such an incident, although third party firms can be contracted to assist with the response. Smaller healthcare organizations may have little choice but to call in external experts to investigate a breach and ensure access to data has been effectively blocked.

OCR has reminded covered entities that a third-party cybersecurity firm brought in to assist with response and mitigation would be classed as a business associate. Therefore, prior to access to systems being provided, a HIPAA-compliant business associate agreement must be signed by the cybersecurity firm. Failing to obtain a signed BAA prior to access to systems being provided would be a violation of HIPAA Rules and classed as an impermissible disclosure of ePHI.

Cyberattacks Should be Reported to Law Enforcement

A cyberattack is a crime, therefore law enforcement should be notified. Covered entities should alert the FBI and/or Secret Service to any cyberattack or ransomware incident and notify state and local law enforcement. Details of the incident should be provided, although covered entities should not disclose any protected health information, unless otherwise permitted by the HIPAA Privacy Rule (45 C.F.R. § 164.512(f)).

Covered entities have been advised that law enforcement may request breach reporting be delayed when the announcement of a breach may impede an investigation or could otherwise harm national security. Requests by law enforcement should state the duration of the delay and should be honored, while oral requests should result in a delay of no more than 30 days from the original request. (45 C.F.R. § 164.412)

Sharing Threat Indicators

After law enforcement has been notified, covered entities should report cyber threat indicators to federal and information sharing and analysis organizations (ISAOs). The Department of Homeland Security and the HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response should be provided with threat indicators, although covered entities should not disclose any protected health information in their reports.

Notifying Affected Individuals and OCR

Covered entities are advised that threat indicator information is not passed to OCR by other federal agencies. Covered entities must therefore submit a separate breach notice to OCR as soon as possible, and certainly no later than 60 days following the discovery of the breach if the incident impacts 500 or more individuals (unless otherwise instructed by law enforcement).

Covered entities can notify OCR of a breach impacting fewer than 500 individuals within 60 days of the end of the calendar year in which the breach was discovered.

According to the guidance, “OCR presumes all cyber-related security incidents where protected health information was accessed, acquired, used, or disclosed are reportable breaches unless the information was encrypted by the entity at the time of the incident.”

In all cases, individuals impacted by a security breach must be notified without unnecessary delay and no later than 60 days following the discovery of a breach.

OCR’s checklist and infographic can be downloaded using the links below:

OCR’s Cyber Security Checklist

Cybersecurity Infographic

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.