A Catholic health care system has agreed to pay $2.14 million to settle claims it failed to change the default settings after installing a new server, allowing public access to the private health records of 31,800 patients.

St. Joseph Health – which operates hospitals, community clinics, nursing facilities and provides a range of other health care services – agreed it was in potential violation of security rules of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights (OCR) opened an investigation on Feb. 14, 2012, after St. Joseph Health reported that files containing electronic protected health information (ePHI) had been publicly accessible via Google and other browsers during the entire preceding year.

“The server SJH purchased to store the files included a file sharing application whose default settings allowed anyone with an Internet connection to access them,” OCR said in an Oct. 17 statement announcing the settlement.

“Upon implementation of this server and the file sharing application, SJH did not examine or modify it,” the statement continued. “As a result, the public had unrestricted access to PDF files containing the ePHI of 31,800 individuals, including patient names, health statuses, diagnoses, and demographic information.”

Federal investigators determined the health care nonprofit failed to coduct a thorough evaluation of the environmental and operational implications of installing the new server.

Also, multiple contractors hired by St. Joseph to assess risks and vulnerabilities of ePHI were brought on in a patchwork fashion that did not result in the enterprise-wide risk analysis required by HIPAA.

“Entities must not only conduct a comprehensive risk analysis, but must also evaluate and address potential security risks when implementing enterprise changes impacting ePHI,” OCR Director Jocelyn Samuels said in a statement. “The HIPAA Security Rule’s specific requirements to address environmental and operational changes are critical for the protection of patient information.”

In addition to the financial payment, St. Joseph Health agreed to a corrective action plan that includes a thorough risk analysis, implementation of a risk management plan and staff training.

The $2.14 million penalty brings the total amount of settlements for HIPAA security violations to $22.84 million this year, up sharply from $6.2 million in all of 2015.

 

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