Have you cleared your copier of PHI?

Have you cleared your copier of PHIPhoto used with permission from Shuttershock.com

A recently publicized case underscores healthcare organizations' nearly universal responsibility for protecting patient information. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) has settled with Affinity Health Plan, a New York-based managed care plan, for HIPAA violations to the tune of $1.2 million after a photocopier containing patient information was compromised.

Affinity filed a breach report with the HHS Office for Civil Rights on April 15, 2010, as required by the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act, according to HHS officials. The HITECH Breach Notification Rule requires HIPAA-covered entities to notify HHS of a breach of unsecured protected health information (PHI).

Affinity officials were informed by CBS Evening News that, as part of an investigative report, the television network had purchased a photocopier, previously leased by Affinity, that contained confidential medical information on its hard drive. Affinity estimated that up to 344,579 individuals might have been affected by this breach.

An HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) investigation indicated that Affinity impermissibly disclosed the PHI of these affected individuals when it returned multiple photocopiers to leasing agents without erasing the data contained on the copier hard drives.

Moreover, the investigation revealed that Affinity failed to incorporate the electronic PHI stored on photocopier hard drives in its analysis of risks and vulnerabilities as required by the HIPAA Security Rule, and failed to implement policies and procedures when returning the photocopiers to its leasing agents.

"This settlement illustrates an important reminder about equipment designed to retain electronic information: Make sure that all personal information is wiped from hardware before it's recycled, thrown away or sent back to a leasing agent," said OCR Director Leon Rodriguez. "HIPAA covered entities are required to undertake a careful risk analysis to understand the threats and vulnerabilities to individuals' data, and have appropriate safeguards in place to protect this information."

In addition to the $1,215,780 payment, the settlement includes a corrective action plan requiring Affinity to use its best efforts to retrieve all hard drives that were contained on photocopiers previously leased by the plan that remain in the possession of the leasing agent, and to take certain measures to safeguard all PHI.

[See also: Old IT, new tricks]

The Security Rule requires covered entities to address "the final disposition of electronic PHI and/or the hardware or electronic media on which it is stored, as well as to implement procedures for removal of electronic PHI from electronic media before the media are made available for re-use."

For electronic media, OCR calls for "clearing (using software or hardware products to overwrite media with non-sensitive data), purging (degaussing or exposing the media to a strong magnetic field in order to disrupt the recorded magnetic domains), or destroying the media (disintegration, pulverization, melting, incinerating or shredding)."

"The biggest risk is not being cognizant that there's so much data in so many different devices," said Sean Magann, vice president at Roseville, Calif.-based Sims Recycling Solutions. "Copiers that doctor's offices use to copy and scan documents – there are hard drives in them…People just think of them as items to be discarded, not realizing that there's flash memory in printers, flash memory in copiers, etc."

Photo used with permission from Shuttershock.com