OCR Settles Second Investigation Related to Ransomware

Feb. 26, 2024
Investigation of ransomware attack at Maryland-based behavioral health provider found evidence of potential violations of the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules leading up to the breach

The  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has settled an investigation following a ransomware attack that affected the protected health information of more than 14,000 individuals. OCR noted that this marks the second settlement it has reached with a HIPAA-regulated entity for potential violations identified during an investigation of a ransomware attack.

The settlement is with Green Ridge Behavioral Health LLC, a Maryland-based practice that provides psychiatric evaluations, medication management, and psychotherapy.

In February 2019, Green Ridge Behavioral Health filed a breach report with OCR stating that its network server had been infected with ransomware resulting in the encryption of company files and the electronic health records of all patients. OCR’s investigation found evidence of potential violations of the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules leading up to and at the time of the breach.

Other findings included that Green Ridge Behavioral Health failed to:
• Have in place an accurate and through analysis to determine the potential risks and vulnerabilities to electronic protected health information;
• Implement security measures to reduce risks and vulnerabilities to a reasonable and appropriate level; and
• Have sufficient monitoring of its health information systems’ activity to protect against a cyber-attack.

Under the terms of the settlement, Green Ridge Behavioral Health agreed to pay $40,000 and implement a corrective action plan that will be monitored by OCR for three years. The plan identifies steps that Green Ridge Behavioral Health will take to resolve potential violations of the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules and to protect electronic protected health information, including:
• Conducting a comprehensive and thorough analysis of the potential risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of electronic protected health information;
• Designing a Risk Management Plan to address and mitigate security risks and vulnerabilities found in the Risk Analysis;
• Reviewing, and as necessary, developing, or revising its written policies and procedures to comply with the HIPAA Rules;
• Providing workforce training on HIPAA policies and procedures;
• Conducting an audit of all third-party arrangements to ensure appropriate business associate agreements are in place, where applicable; and
• Reporting to OCR when workforce members fail to comply with HIPAA.

“Ransomware is growing to be one of the most common cyber-attacks and leaves patients extremely vulnerable,” said OCR Director Melanie Fontes Rainer, in a statement. “These attacks cause distress for patients who will not have access to their medical records, therefore they may not be able to make the most accurate decisions concerning their health and well-being. Health care providers need to understand the seriousness of these attacks and must have practices in place to ensure patients’ protected health information is not subjected to cyber-attacks such as ransomware.”

Over the past five years, there has been a 256 percent increase in large breaches reported to OCR involving hacking and a 264 percent increase in ransomware. In 2023, hacking accounted for 79 percent of the large breaches reported to OCR. The large breaches reported in 2023 affected over 134 million individuals, a 141 percent increase from 2022.

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