Is Your ePHI Encrypted?

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You know that you have to secure your Protected Health Information. You also know that you should encrypt your PHI. But, do you know how expensive not having your PHI encrypted can be? Do you know the steps you should take to encrypt your devices and systems?

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center (MD Anderson) knows exactly how expensive it is to fail to encrypt. MD Anderson experienced multiple HIPAA violations recently:

  • Theft of an unencrypted laptop from a private residence of an employee
  • Two losses of unencrypted USB thumb drives

Because of these violations, MD Anderson was ordered to pay $4.35 Million in penalties to the Office for Civil Rights (OCR). The OCR news release on this case can be viewed here.

A History of Risk

In 2006, MD Anderson implemented written encryption policies. Even though they had formal a formal policy in place, MD Anderson had not implemented their policy. In fact, their risk analysis found that a lack of device-level encryption posed a high level risk. MD Anderson did not actually begin to implement encryption of ePHI until 2011. Even then, they still failed to encrypt its devices containing ePHI between March 24, 2011 and January 25, 2013.

They were penalized for each day of non-compliance and for each record breached. HIPAA allows for fines up to $1.5 Million per record per calendar year when assessing penalties for breaches.

MD Anderson was hoping to reduce the penalty. They argued that they were not obligated to encrypt their devices. They argued that because the ePHI disclosed was for research it was not subject to HIPAA. MD Anderson also believes that the penalties were unreasonable. The judge ruling on the case determined that there is a “high risk to MD Anderson’s patients resulting from the unauthorized disclosure of ePHI,” a risk that MD Anderson “not only recognized, but that it restated many times.”

Encrypt Your PHI

So, what can you learn from this incident? Encrypt your PHI! Encryption sounds much more difficult than it actually is. You can easily encrypt your devices using tools already built into them. If it is not easy to encrypt a device, such as a USB drive, simply disallow the use in your organization. The risk is simply too great for you not to encrypt all devices with PHI.

The HIPAA Security Rule is confusing. There are two types of steps identified in the Security Rule: Required and Addressable. The encryption rules for HIPAA are specified as “Addressable.” This confuses many organizations, just like MD Anderson. Addressable sounds like it should be optional. However, the definition of Addressable is not synonymous with optional.

If a HIPAA rule is Addressable, you must adopt a similar solution. So, if you determine that encryption is not an option for your organization, you must adopt similar solution to secure your PHI. In addition, you must have a strong justification as to why you are not able to implement the encryption rule.

The encryption and decryption standard can be found here.

Steps You Should Take

Just knowing that you have to encrypt your devices and stored PHI is not enough. You need to take steps to implementing encryption practices in your organization. The first step is conducting a risk analysis. You can’t protect what you don’t know is at risk.

Secondly, you need to take an inventory of all your assets that store or transmit PHI. Be careful not to forget personal devices that are used to access your PHI (Bring Your Own Device – BYOD). During this step, determine if you need to apply encryption on the device or system.

You also need to create a policy and procedures for encrypting your PHI. Just having a policy in place is not sufficient. You have to IMPLEMENT your encryption procedures. In addition, you need to train your employees on the proper use and security of devices and systems containing PHI.

For more on how HIPAAtrek can help you with your HIPAA privacy and security program, please contact us!

HIPAA and Personal Devices

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