HIPAA Security Risk Assessments are Essential

HIPAA Security Risk Assessment(September 29, 2014) In the last article, we discussed the importance of conducting HIPAA security risk assessments, as part of your obligations under the HIPAA Security rules. The importance of promptly conducting a risk analysis if it has not yet done cannot be overestimated, as the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has now announced that they intend to begin the next phase of audits in October 2014. When Covered Entity receives a data request letter from OCR, it will have only two weeks to respond, which will not be enough time to conduct a risk analysis at that point.

In this article we’ll discuss eight elements or considerations that OCR states must be addressed in a risk analysis.

I.  Scope of the Analysis:

In conducting a risk assessment, a health care provider must consider all of the potential risks to electronic protected health information (e-PHI). Covered Entities must consider how all e-PHI in their practice is created, used, stored, and transmitted. Thus, Covered Entities need to consider how they create, receive, access, and transmit e-PHI. This includes removable storage media such as floppy disks, CDs, flash or thumb drives, and smart phones. Covered Entities must also think about telephone calls, emails, faxes, and computer transmissions. Consider how many employees or personnel can access the data and whether those individuals are all on-site or if any are off-site.

II.  Document How Data is Collected, Stored, Maintained and Transmitted:

Covered Entities must identify and document where e-PHI is gathered, received, stored, maintained or transmitted. This can be done through interviews with staff members, a physical walk through of the office or practice location(s), or reviewing documentation.

III.  Identify and Document Potential Risks, Threats and Vulnerabilities:

Covered Entities must document the reasonably anticipated threats to e-PHI. Consider physical, environmental, natural, human and technological threats or risks. Environmental or natural threats should include natural disasters such as tornadoes, floods or earthquakes. Human threats are likely to be some of the greatest concern. These include current employees and contractors, ex-employees and contractors, visitors, and criminals such as thieves and hackers. Technological threats will include any known system vulnerabilities in the billing system or EMR/EHR, for example. Healthcare providers should contact the vendors of these systems to ask about any known vulnerabilities.

IV.  Identify and Evaluate Current Security Measures:

Covered Entities must document what security measures are already in place to guard e-PHI and whether those measures are installed, configured and used correctly. The level and extent of security measures will vary by the type and size of provider. As an example, list any anti-virus or firewall programs. Don’t forget to document physical security measures, such as security and alarm systems.

V.  Determine the Likelihood of the Occurrence of the Threats:

This element requires Covered Entities to consider the probability that the threats listed in step # 3 will occur. This can be done with a quantitative method (such as the percentage probability that a threat will occur) or a qualitative one (such as high, medium, low). A high probability of occurrence means that a threat is “reasonably anticipated” and thus will require a mitigation or protection against the threat occurring. For example, a healthcare provider may determine that there is a high probability of a break-in into the office or clinic. Thus, a mitigation such as an alarm or security system would be an example of a security measure that could be implemented pursuant to step # 4.

VI.  Determine the Potential Impact if a Threat Occurs:

Covered Entities must evaluate the impact that might result from a threat occurring. Again, this can be done using a quantitative or qualitative method. For example, a potential impact of a breach of a Covered Entity’s billing system might be loss of cash flow or cost to replace stolen computer equipment. This might be a high or severe impact. Another example could be unauthorized access to e-PHI by patients or visitors. This impact might be low or medium.

VII.  Determine the Level of Risk:

This step is accomplished by utilizing the data from steps 5 and 6. A very common method of documenting the level of risk is using a HIPAA risk assessment matrix (such as a 3 x 3 matrix) or “heat map”. Those threats or vulnerabilities with higher levels of risk are ones that a Covered Entity should focus on addressing or correcting sooner than those with lower levels of risk.

VIII.  Identify HIPAA Security Risk Assessment Measures and Document the Risk Analysis:

Once the Covered Entity has identified risks and assigned risk levels, it must identify tasks, actions or security measures to address those risks. In identifying security measures, the Covered Entity should consider factors such as effectiveness, requirements of the Covered Entity’ policies and procedures and other legislative or regulatory requirements (for example, state laws). If a Covered Entity identifies a security measure but decides not to implement it, the risk analysis should document why (for example, technologically not feasible, lack of knowledge or equipment, cost prohibitive, etc.)

The Security Rule also requires Covered Entities to document the risk analysis, but does not specify or require any particular format. Thus, the risk analysis can be documented via a report that lists elements # 1 through 7, summarizes the analysis, notes the results of each step, and identifies the security measures.

Two final very important comments. First, the Risk Analysis is NOT the process of implementing measures to address the risks identified. That is the risk management process under HIPAA, which is considered a separate activity. Second, the Risk Analysis is not a “do it once and forget about it” process. The Risk Analysis must be periodically revisited and reviewed to determine if the threats, vulnerabilities, impacts and potential security measures remain the same. A Covered Entity may bring new systems online, may open or close locations, or have major changes in personnel. The re-evaluation of a Covered Entity’s Risk Analysis ideally should occur on an annual basis. A very old and outdated Risk Analysis is basically equivalent to not having a Risk Analysis at all.

Heidi Kocher Healthcare AttorneyHeidi Kocher serves as Counsel for Liles Parker and represents health care providers and suppliers in the Dallas / Fort Worth metropolitan area.  Heidi is an experienced health lawyer and is skilled in assisting clients with transactional projects, compliance issues and in fraud and abuse counseling.  Should you have any questions regarding the HIPAA security risk assessment process, please give Heidi a call.  For a free consultation, call Heidi at: 1 (800) 475-1906.

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