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Stolen laptop leads to health data breach at Apria Healthcare

By Kyle Murphy, PhD

- A laptop stolen from the locked car of an Apria Healthcare employee has exposed the protected health information (PHI) of as many as 11,000 patients. The healthcare company provides home infusion, respiratory, and medical equipment in all 50 states in more than 500 locations.

According to a company press release, the theft occurred on June 14, 2012, in Phoenix, Arizona; however, its ramifications could extend to California, New Mexico, and Nevada because of the laptop’s use in billing services. A report in the Arizona Daily Star has noted that 4,178 of the approximate 11,000 patients affected reside in Arizona. The California-based company immediately notified local law enforcement and began its own internal investigations, which revealed that PHI included Social Security numbers and names. Potentially, it also comprises dates of birth and other personal information.

In Apria’s official announcement, the company’s Associate General Counsel and Privacy Officer Doreen Bellucci revealed that the company will review its security measures. This includes encrypting laptops and other internal privacy safeguards, she told that Arizona news outlet. Apria will supply affected patients with a year’s worth of credit monitoring.

This latest incident is troubling for two reasons: first, the lack of physical safeguards; second, the lack of technical safeguards. While locks and alarms will only slow down rather than deter a dedicated thief, they don’t make up for the sheer negligence of exposing such valuable piece of hardware to prying eyes and wandering hands. Moreover, the lack of encryption smacks of a blatant disregard for the trust patients put into providers regarding their personal and financial information.

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  • At the very least, an entity covered under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) needs to put administrative safeguards in place to analyze the risks associated with PHI. It should include the education of staff to ensure that all members are aware of an organization’s safeguards.

    It’s not unlikely that an employee working at multiple locations should need to carry a laptop between worksites. However, this practice should carry with it special procedures and protocols to ensure that PHI in physical transit is not unnecessarily exposed to a health data breach. Hopefully, fewer covered entities will avoid doing the bare minimum to safeguard patient information.

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