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OCR’s Wall of Shame Under Review by HHS

Since 2009, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights has been publishing summaries of healthcare data breaches on its website. The data breach list is commonly referred to as OCR’s ‘Wall of Shame’.

The data breach list only provides a brief summary of data breaches, including the name of the covered entity, the state in which the covered entity is based, covered entity type, date of notification, type of breach, location of breach information, whether a business associate was involved and the number of individuals affected.

The list includes all reported data breaches, including those which occurred due to no fault of the healthcare organization. The list is not a record of HIPAA violations. Those are determined during OCR investigations of breaches.

Making brief details of the data breaches available to the public is an ‘unnecessarily punitive’ measure, according to Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), who recently criticized OCR about its data breach list.

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Burgess was informed at a cybersecurity hearing last week that HHS secretary Tom Price is currently reassessing the website and how the information is made public.

While the publication of information is under review, the publication of breach summaries is a requirement of the HITECH Act of 2009. Any decision to stop publishing breach summaries on the website would require assistance from Congress. However, it is possible for changes be made to how the information displayed and for how long the information is made available. HITECH Act only requires the information to be published. It does not stipulate the length of time that the covered entity remains on the list.

The reason behind the publication of breach information is to inform the public of data breaches and to provide some information on what has occurred. If there was a time limit placed on the length of time a covered entity remained on the list, it would not be possible for a member of the public to determine whether a breach was an isolated event or one of several suffered by a covered entity.

OCR Director Roger Severino issued a statement confirming the usefulness of the website saying, “The website provides an important source of information to the public, but we recognize that the format has become stale and can and should be improved,” explaining “OCR will continue to evaluate the best options for communicating this information as we meet statutory obligations, educate the regulated community (and the public) on lessons learned, and highlight actions taken in response.”

Burgess told Fierce Healthcare, “I am interested in pursuing solutions that hold hospital systems accountable for maintaining patient privacy without defaming systems that may fall victim to large-scale ransomware attacks, such as WannaCry.”

Of course, in the case of the WannaCry attacks, healthcare organizations may not be blameless. The attacks were only possible as a result of the failure to apply patches promptly. However, in its current form, there would be no indication on the website that a covered entity had experienced a ransomware attack as the breach list does not go into that much detail.

While options are being considered, some privacy advocates argue that the breach portal does not go into nearly enough detail and suggest even more information should be uploaded to the site to better inform the public on exactly what has occurred.

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.