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Federal Audits Find HIT Security Problems at CMS, ONC

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, May 18, 2011

Audits of the federal agencies charged with implementing and monitoring security measures for healthcare information technology identified this week lax oversight and insufficient standards for healthcare providers.

The audits were conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General, and targeted HIT security standards, privacy protection under HIPAA, and other security measures at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, and the Office of the National Coordinator. "These two reports are being issued simultaneously because OIG found weaknesses in the two HHS agencies entrusted with keeping sensitive patient records private and secure," OIG said in a media release.  

The CMS audit, Nationwide Rollup Review of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 Oversight, examined seven hospitals across the country and found 151 "vulnerabilities" in systems and controls that are designed to safeguard electronic protected health information.

Those lapses included 124 "high impact vulnerabilities" such as unencrypted laptops and portable drives containing sensitive personal health information, outdated antivirus software and patches, unsecured networks, and the failure to detect rogue devices intruding on wireless networks, the OIG audit said.

"These vulnerabilities placed the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of ePHI at risk. Outsiders or employees at some hospitals could have accessed, and at one hospital did access, systems and beneficiaries' personal data and performed unauthorized acts without the hospitals' knowledge," the OIG audit said. "As a result, CMS had limited assurance that controls were in place and operating as intended to protect electronic protected health information, thereby leaving ePHI vulnerable to attack and compromise."

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