Congress ponders health care cybersecurity

Hospitals are panicked, and Congress doesn’t know what to do to make them feel better about cyberattacks.

A number of recent high profile hackings have raised alarms about the vulnerabilities of the nation’s health care system to hackers.

A report by PBS at the end of March estimated that 113 million health records had been compromised in 2015. The nation’s performance had improved during the first three months of 2016; only 3.5 million had been accessed.

What is particularly troublesome is “ransomware,” a type of virus that can infiltrate a computer system and demand a ransom to give the owner control of the system again. The ransom is often demanded in bitcoins, the cyber currency.

Earlier this year, officials of Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital paid hackers a roughly $17,000 ransom. While many saw the hospital’s decision as rational, the precedent it set scares health care leaders who believe it may embolden hackers to target others.

According to Politico, hospitals across the country face nearly weekly threats from similar actors. Part of the problem, explain some experts, is the pressure the Obama administration has put on health care providers to implement electronic health records.

The administration’s push for EHRs “thrust tens of thousands of health care providers into the digital age before they were ready,” David Brailer, chief of health IT in the administration of George W. Bush told Politico. “One area where they were woefully unprepared is security.”

Lawmakers are seeking solutions, including through a bipartisan bill introduced last month that would require the Department of Health and Human Services to appoint a point person on cybersecurity.

On Wednesday, however, Rep. Joseph Pitts, R-PA, the chair of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health, said that he was unsure of whether the proposed legislation would go far enough in addressing the issues revealed in a study of the agency’s security measures conducted by the committee.

“The committee’s investigation uncovered problems that were much more persistent and pervasive than previously thought,” he said in a statement.


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