HHS: More than 5.4M patients affected by data breaches in 2010

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In U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ annual report to Congress, Secretary Kathleen Sebelius reported that between Jan. 1, 2010, and Dec. 31, 2010, breaches involving 500 or more individuals were less than 1 percent of the breaches reported, but accounted for more than 99 percent of the more than 5.4 million individuals who were affected.

As part of the Health IT for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, the HHS secretary is required to annually report to Congress on the number and nature of data breaches, and actions taken to respond to the breaches.

The number is growing because between Sept. 23, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2009, breaches involving 500 or more individuals were less than 1 percent, but accounted for more than 99 percent of the more than 2.4 million individuals affected by a breach of protected health information. The largest breaches occurred as a result of a theft, an error or failure to adequately secure protected health information. The greatest number of incidents resulted from human or technological error and involved the protected health information of just one individual, HHS’ report said.

The largest breaches in 2010, much like 2009, occurred as a result of a theft, HHS reported. However, compared with 2009, the number of individuals affected by the loss of electronic media or paper records containing protected health information in 2010 was greater than the number of individuals affected by unauthorized access or human error.

The report said the 2010 incidents involved an additional category, improper disposal of paper records by a covered entity or business associate. The greatest number of reported incidents in 2010 resulted from small breaches involving human or technological error, with the most common incidents involving protected health information of only one or two individuals.

HHS said in its report that the breach notification requirements are achieving their objectives: Increasing public transparency of breaches and increasing accountability of the covered entities.

The secretary indicated that covered entities and business associates are providing breach notifications. Millions of affected individuals are receiving notifications, local media are being notified in the regions affected, and the secretary is receiving breach reports. To provide increased public transparency, information about breaches involving 500 or more individuals is available on the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) website.

Also, the report said that more entities are taking remedial action to provide relief and mitigation to individuals and taking further action to prevent future breaches. In addition, OCR continues to exercise its oversight responsibility for reviewing and responding to and investigating breaches involving 500 or more individuals.

More than 250 breaches involving 500 or more individuals occurred in 2009 and 2010, and OCR has closed approximately 76 cases where it determined that the covered entity properly complied with the notification requirements, and corrective actions were taken. In the remaining cases, OCR continues to investigate and is working with the covered entities to ensure remedial action is taken to prevent future incidents.

For breaches involving less than 500 individuals, a covered entity must notify the secretary. HHS received approximately 5,521 reports of smaller breaches that occurred between Sept. 23, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2009. These smaller breaches affected approximately 12,000 individuals. HHS received more than 25,000 reports of smaller breaches occurring between Jan. 1, 2010, and Dec. 31, 2010. These smaller breaches affected more than 50,000 individuals.

The majority of the smaller breaches involved misdirected communications. Often, a clinical or claims record was mistakenly mailed or faxed to the wrong individual. In other instances, test results were sent to the wrong patient, files were attached to the wrong record, e-mails were sent to the wrong address and member ID cards were mailed to the wrong individuals. HHS said the covered entities reported fixing “glitches” in software that incorrectly compiled patient lists, revised policies and procedures, and trained or retrained employees who mishandled protected health information.