California physician notifying patients of breach involving old patient data

Here’s another case where a covered entity only learned about a breach when they were contacted by law enforcement.   

Kathleen E. Whisman, M.D.  notified patients on August 5 that on or about April 11, she received a call from the San Ramon Police Department. They informed her that while investigating an ID theft ring, they found information on one suspect’s computer concerning some of her patients.

In a notification letter, her attorneys wrote that she

can only speculate that the information on the suspect’s computer was removed from a recently stolen computer. In 1999, Dr. Whisman was changing billing companies and she believes that the patient information had been stored on the stolen computer to assist with this transition.

It’s not clear from the letter whether she is speculating that a computer was recently stolen or knows that one was and is speculating that the data were on it. And if she knows that a computer was recently stolen, was it stolen from her or from some vendor or other party?  In any event, it’s clear that at the time of patient notification, she didn’t really know for sure how the patient information wound up on the computer of an ID thief nor when the data were stolen.  Although she may be correct in her hypothesis, without more investigation or details, we can’t even rule out that the data were stolen back in 1999 by an office employee.

Based on a copy of the information provided by the police, the database contained the following types of information on patients seen in 1998 and 1999:

  • Full Name,
  • Address,
  • Telephone number,
  • Date of Birth,
  • Social Security Number, and
  • Insurance plan information.

Dr. Whisman, through her attorneys, reports that she was asked to delay notification so as not to interfere with law enforcement’s investigation, but was given approval to start notifying at the beginning of August.

Note that we have not (yet) seen this breach on HHS’s public breach tool. The letter to patients, a copy of which was submitted to California Attorney General’s Office, does not indicate that HHS was notified, although they may well have been. Nor is there any explanation as to why notification to the state was delayed from August 5, when patients were notified, until today, when the copy was submitted.

Affected patients were offered free credit monitoring services and encouraged to check their accounts and credit reports. Given that she does not know how and when the data were stolen, for how long they were in possession of the suspect, and whether the data had actually been misused, there’s more that we don’t about this breach than we do. Which leads me to one final point. Dr. Whisman’s attorneys note:

The circumstances that resulted in this breach were unforseen and Dr. Whisman assures you that office procedures and protections currently in place making it extremely unlikely there will be any future, similar circumstances.

Why were the circumstances unforeseen in 1999 – and what circumstances, if you don’t even know what they were?

It would be nice to get more details or a follow-up on this breach.

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