How to Write an ARRA Breach Notification Letter

Note:This article originally appeared on the Jeffrey Neu Blog.

“We’ve had a breach.” It’s a sentence nobody wants to hear, but when it happens to you, what to you do? If you’re in the healthcare industry, new federal regulations probably require you write a letter to the victims of the breach, or more. When and how quickly do you have to send a HIPAA/ ARRA notification? And what does it have to say?

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) requires HIPAA-covered entities to notify breach victims when protected health information has been disclosed to an unauthorized person. The legislation gives liberal exceptions for good faith and inadvertent disclosure. Redaction or encryption is an absolute defense to a breach.

“Protected Health Information” is any stored or transmitted health information which can be tied to an individual. It may include information not directly related to health, such as a full name, social security number, date of birth, home address, account number, or disability code. The law also requires third-party contractors or “business associates” to report breaches to the covered entity.

When a breach occurs, the covered entity must notify victims and the Secretary of Human Services “without unreasonable delay,” and within 60 days of the discovery of the breach. The covered entity must notify the individual directly if possible (ie, by mail), and must also post a notice on its website if the breach involves 10 or more victims who are not directly reachable. If the breach involves more than 500 residents of a single state, the covered entity must also notify statewide media.

A breach notification letter must meet differing but complementary legal and economic goals. They include:

  1. Complying with law
  2. Minimizing Losses

Compliance with Law

Complying with the law is straightforward. In addition to the requirements above, the notification must include a brief description of the incident, including the following information:

  • Date of the breach;
  • Date of discovery;
  • Description of the types of protected health information breached;
  • Steps individuals should take to protect themselves from potential harm resulting from the breach;
  • A brief description of the investigation, efforts to minimize losses and prevent future breaches;
  • Contact information for individuals who wish to ask questions or learn more information, including a toll-free phone number, e-mail address, website, or postal address.

Repairing your Company’s Image

Avoid the natural tendency to clamp up. Of course, the best way to protect your company’s image is to keep bad news out of the public eye. But once the cat’s out of the bag, several studies indicate that more than two-thirds of economic losses arising from a data breach are due to brand diminishment and lost customer trust, rather than litigation or identity theft expenses.

Above all, your company must maintain credibility. Be honest, open, and share enough detail to convince an educated person that you know what you’re talking about, and that you’ve actually fixed the problem. Consider hiring an outside security consultant who can 1. Give you genuine feedback on your security practices, and 2. Vouch for your credibility when you say that your customers are safe.

Rebuilding Customer Trust

Consider your last trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles. It probably consisted of waiting for hours in multiple serpentine lines without any direction, followed by more waiting, followed by spending money. The best part is riding away in your car when you’re done. Surprisingly, Disneyland and the DMV have a lot in common: Long lines, spending money, and rides. What sets the DMV apart from the happiest place on earth? One important ingredient is Customer Empowerment.

One way the Disney folks empower customers is by posting periodic signs in long lines: “Wait Time: 45 minutes from this point.” Though the sign does not decrease wait time, it informs and empowers customers. And as Disney knows, empowered customers are happy customers. Frustrated, angry customers are far more likely to cause trouble or leave altogether.

The best way to rebuild your customers’ trust is to empower them. Too many breach notifications include the unhelpful statement, “We have no reason to believe that anyone has accessed or misused your information.” The statement is faulty because it does not empower the customer to take action. Also, if the statement isn’t completely true, or if it changes in the future, it may inadvertently induce liability under certain circumstances. Further, these types of statements tend to frustrate rather than empower customers, causing some to conclude that the notification is incomplete or disingenuous.

Instead, consider these options:

  • Say, “Although we have no reason to believe that anyone has accessed or misused your information, if you think your personal information has been misused as a result of this breach, please call 1-800-XXX-XXXX so we can investigate…”
  • Include statistics on typical rates of harm for similar breaches, where possible.
  • Actually investigate the breach.
  • Create a website where customers can get up-to-the minute updates on the investigation directly from you, start using the best Managing Leads.

Mitigating Civil Liability

ARRA does not expressly create a private right of action for a HIPAA breach. Other theoretical sources of liability exist, though. For example, an individual may be able to rely upon a notification statute as the basis for a suit alleging negligence per se, where the breach of the duty to notify causes proximate harm to the plaintiff. Next, failure to correct statements (such as privacy policies) which have become false or misleading in light of new events, may create a tortious cause of action if the company fails to warn customers about foreseeable risks to personal information.

In contrast, most breaches are not likely to create privacy liability. Privacy tort actions usually require the breached information to cause extreme emotional distress, or a dilution of the property value of reputation or prestige. In addition, most courts have consistently failed to force companies to pay for credit monitoring services unless:

  1. A person has become an actual victim of identity theft.
  2. The person has found the thief
  3. The person can prove that the thief’s copy of their SSN or other personal information came from the breaching entity, and
  4. The person proves that the entity had a legal obligation to keep that information private.

Instead, it’s important to remember that businesses stand to loose more money from brand diminishment and lost customer trust than from litigation.

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