“The AAFP has long supported policies that guarantee the appropriate security of protected health information while working to improve patients’ access to their data, as well as the ability to share patients’ health information across the care team,” the earlier letter said. “We are strongly supportive of making data reliably interoperable while maintaining patient confidentiality and the fundamental right to privacy.”
“The rapid move to this electronic era of health care has unavoidably introduced the risk of cyberattacks for all health care organizations,” the Academy wrote. Noting that more than 45 million people “were affected by cybersecurity attacks on health care professionals in 2021,” the letter added that, while patient health data privacy and security are a high priority for physician practices, “not all of them have the resources, financial capacity or technical knowledge needed to properly establish and implement best practices in cybersecurity.”
AAFP Policy Guidance
“Congress should encourage the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT to consider including cybersecurity framework best practices in health IT certification as one strategy to arrive at industry-wide adoption of standard best practices,” the Academy told Warner’s office. “If all EHR vendors are required to incorporate these practices into their technology, this would enable smaller physician practices who purchase and utilize their software and systems but lack their own IT resources to benefit from basic cybersecurity protections.
“In the meantime, the AAFP recommends Congress consider ways to encourage all health entities to adopt voluntary guidance from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, with technical assistance and support for effective implementation in real-world settings.
Other recommendations the Academy made included
- a workforce development program to address significant health care cybersecurity staffing shortages by introducing incentives for such professionals to work in rural, independent and small practices, those in underserved communities, and communities with health professional shortages, modeled on the ONC’s Regional Extension Center program;
- student loan forgiveness or repayment programs that would allow cybersecurity professionals to spend several years serving health care organizations in rural or underserved communities and smaller health care organizations, especially safety-net facilities;
- leadership from Congress and HHS toward building a robust set of best practices and implementation guides with specific real-world guidance to improve cybersecurity practices in all health care settings, available to physician practices of all types, settings and sizes;
- incentives for compliance with minimum cybersecurity practices rather than penalties for noncompliance, within a policymaking stance focused on quality improvement and assurance rather than blame and penalties;
- high cybersecurity standards and compliance with industry best practices mandated for certified EHR and medical device vendors;
- express accounting for cybersecurity expenses reflected in Medicare payment (incorporated into practice expense and other formulae, as are other basic expenses) are; and
- congressional support for, and regulation of, cyber insurance to allow smaller health care organizations to afford coverage (including, for example, minimum coverage provisions as guardrails against junk plans).
Because the HIPAA privacy rule protects only health care data maintained by a covered entity or its business associates, the letter also called on Congress to “take action to protect personal and health data outside of HIPAA and ensure cybersecurity and privacy rules extend beyond the HIPAA regulatory framework.” The Academy urged this and related protections in a Sept. 15, 2022, letter to the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The document from Warner’s office asked how Congress should work with HHS to improve cybersecurity resources and capabilities and whether the Health Information Sharing and Analysis Center is “the best entity for information sharing among health care organizations.” Answering that question and its follow-up — “Would an incentive for smaller health-sector entities be beneficial to the nation’s health care system?” — the Academy pushed for solutions that would not add administrative complexity to family medicine practices.
“Given that access to resources through H-ISAC requires a paid membership, cost is likely to be a barrier for smaller organizations benefiting,” the AAFP said. “We encourage Congress to evaluate the effectiveness of H-ISAC and, if it is determined to be the best entity for information sharing across health care organizations, consider federal funding and a government-private sector partnership to significantly expand access to its resources for smaller and under-resourced physician practices.
“Congress must consider ways that small and independent physician practices can benefit from and realistically implement practices included in the offered resources without being required to be a member of H-ISAC.”
Both letters advocated for other cost-limiting, policy streamlining and workforce development programs that would strengthen health data security without adding administrative burden to physicians.
In supporting the Healthcare Cybersecurity Act, the Academy noted that the bill would provide for greater coordination and information sharing among the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, HHS and health care entities, a move toward administrative simplification. It also would set in motion a number of the priorities outlined in the Academy’s letter to Sen. Warner, including training for health care entities on cybersecurity risks and mitigation strategies and initiatives to address cybersecurity workforce shortages for health care organizations, particularly rural and small and medium-sized organizations.
The Academy is also tracking the Health Care Providers Safety Act (H.R. 7814 / S. 4268), which would establish a grant program for health care organizations to enhance the physical and cyber security of their facilities, personnel and patients, in line with the AAFP’s policy recommendations.