By Todd R. Weiss
JANUARY 26, 2006
About 365,000 hospice and home health care patients in Oregon and
Washington are being notified about the theft of computer backup data
disks and tapes late last month that included personal information and
confidential medical records.
In an announcement  yesterday, Providence Home Services, a division
of Seattle-based Providence Health Systems, said the records and other
data were on several disks and tapes stolen from the car of a
Providence employee at his home. The incident was reported by the
employee on Dec. 31, according to the health care system.
The tapes and disks were taken home by the employee as part of a
backup protocol that sent them off-site to protect them against loss
from fires or other disasters. That practice, which was only used by
the home health care division of the hospital system, has since been
stopped, said health system spokesman Gary Walker.
"This was only done in one area of the company," Walker said. "It did
not involve the hospital's database [of patients]....That one part of
the company was sending data home off-site. But we should have
reviewed the policy."
The data on the tapes was encrypted, Walker said, and the data on the
disks was in a proprietary file format that was not encrypted, but "is
stored in a way that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for
someone to access it, then make any sense out of it."
From now on, all data will be made secure using additional
technologies, according to Walker. "We are encrypting all the material
we can encrypt now," as the health care system reviews all of its
procedures and security, he said. "We are sorry that this happened and
we don't want it to happen again."
Providence officials said there have been no reports that any of the
stolen information has been used improperly since the incident.
Providence is notifying affected patients by mail about the theft. The
information on the disks and tapes included names, addresses, dates of
birth, physicians=92 names, insurance data, diagnoses, prescriptions and
some lab results. For approximately 250,000 of the patients, Social
Security numbers were on the records, according to the health system.
Some of the records also included patient financial information.
Rick Cagen, CEO of Providence's Portland service area, said new backup
procedures are being implemented using more traditional IT means,
including secure sites in remote locations for safety and redundancy.
"We do have alternate practices now," Cagen said.
The four-week delay in publicly announcing the theft was needed so
Providence officials could recreate the stolen data and identify the
patients who needed to be contacted, he said. The delay was also
caused in part by the large number of records that had to be
processed, he said.
"We realize this is a major inconvenience and cause for real concern,
and we deeply apologize to everyone affected by this incident," Cagen
said. "Even though we have no indication that the thief has accessed
the data, we are doing all we can to help our patients and employees
protect their information."
The incident is the second data theft from a motor vehicle announced
this week. Yesterday, Minneapolis-based financial services company
Ameriprise Financial Inc. said it is notifying some 158,000 customers
and 68,000 financial advisers that a laptop containing personal
information about them -- including names, account numbers or Social
Security numbers -- was stolen from a parked car late last month (see
"Ameriprise notifying 226,000 customers, advisers of data theft" ).
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