Breach Notification , Cybercrime , Fraud Management & Cybercrime

Health Plan Services Firm Notifying 2.4 Million of PHI Theft

Data Stolen Over a Year Ago, But WebTPA Didn’t Discover Hack Until December
Health Plan Services Firm Notifying 2.4 Million of PHI Theft
Image: WebTPA

A Texas-based firm that provides health plan administration services is notifying more than 2.4 million individuals of a hacking incident detected in December that involved data theft and occurred more than a year ago.

See Also: NHS Ransomware Attack: Healthcare Industry Infrastructures Are Critical

Irving, Texas-based WebTPA reported the hacking incident to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on May 8 as affecting nearly 2.43 million individuals and involving a network server.

WebTPA, which offers benefits administration to self-insured employers and various administrative services to nonprofit hospitals, is a unit of GuideWell, a Jacksonville, Florida-based company that specializes in healthcare efficiency services.

The hack on WebTPA is among several recent attacks on business associates that offer critical administrative services to health plans and related healthcare sector organizations.

In its breach notice, WebTPA said that on Dec. 28, it detected evidence of suspicious activity on its network that prompted the company to launch an investigation.

"Upon detecting the incident, we promptly initiated measures to mitigate the threat and further secure our network, WebTPA said. The company investigated the incident with the support of third-party cybersecurity experts and notified federal law enforcement.

WebTPA's investigation found that an "unauthorized actor" may have obtained personal information between April 18 and April 23, 2023.

"WebTPA promptly informed benefit plans and insurance companies about the incident and the potential exposure of personal information." The company said it then worked to confirm the extent of affected data and notified benefit plans and insurance companies of the findings on March 25.

The information potentially compromised includes name, contact information, birthdate, date of death, Social Security number and insurance information. Not every data element was included for every individual, WebTPA says.

Financial information, such as financial account information or credit card numbers, and treatment or diagnostic information were not affected in the incident, the company said.

WebTPA is offering affected individuals two years of complimentary identity and credit monitoring services. The company said it deployed additional security measures and tools to strengthen the security of its network.

WebTPA said it is not aware of any misuse of benefit plan member information as a result of this incident.

Neither WebTPA nor its parent company GuideWell immediately responded to Information Security Media Group's request for additional details about the incident.

The lag time between WebTPA discovering suspicious activity on its network and concluding three months later that information had been taken by attackers - nearly a year after the hack occurred - underscores the challenges many organizations face related to incident response and breach analysis, some expert said.

"While victims and impacted entities rightfully seek expedited information regarding accessed data, there is a due diligence process to define the full time window of compromise for which you must account for all data accessed," said Max Henderson, assistant vice president of digital forensics and incident response at security firm Pondurance.

"In other words, you must first perform containment and eradication measures where you identify the earliest entry date into the network. You cannot provide confidence on the totality of accessed data if you cannot first provide the full range of time in which unauthorized access occurred," he said.

As of Friday, the incident is the third-largest breach posted so far in 2024 on the HHS Office for Civil Rights' HIPAA Breach Reporting Tool website listing protected health information breaches affecting 500 or more individuals.

The WebTPA incident is among the latest large breaches so far this year involving business associates that provide administrative services to health plans and other healthcare sector entities.

Also among the five largest breaches posted so far this year on the HHS OCR website is a hacking incident affecting 2.35 million individuals reported on Feb. 6 by Arizona-based Medical Management Resource Group, which does business as American Vision Partners and provides a management system, IT and infrastructure services to 12 eye doctor practices (see: Hack at Services Firm Hits 2.4 Million Eye Doctor Patients).

By far the largest health data breach expected to land on the HHS OCR website in coming months is the cyberattack on UnitedHealth Group's Change Healthcare unit. The February attack by BlackCat/Alphv disrupted critical IT services - including claims processing and patient eligibility - that Change Healthcare provides to thousands of hospitals, doctor practices and other healthcare sector entities. UnitedHealth Group said the incident potentially affects about one-third of the U.S. population.

"Criminal enterprises often focus on a particular vulnerability and assess their options across all vulnerable organizations for which ones are a viable target," Henderson said.

"Extortion measures against critical services are often a more successful outcome for criminals due to the need to rapidly restore services and rapidly assess impacted data associated with regulations," he said.

Indeed, business associates that process records for multiple covered entities are ripe targets for records theft for two main reasons, said Mike Hamilton, founder and CISO of security firm Critical Insight.

One, he said, is that these third parties possess a great number of records for many entities, and two is that such attacks give the criminals a tremendous amount of leverage.

"The fallout from the theft of records is bad enough, causing regulatory actions, fines, etc. But if the records are made public, the potential for class action and enforcement of the False Claims Act rises, and the victim is incentivized to pay the extortion demand," Hamilton said.

Covered entities should take note of the trend to compromise business associates and ensure that there are backup services and IT providers and methods to shift operations if a third party is compromised, he said.

"Notification should be mandatory and articulated in the business associate agreement. Not all services provided by third parties can be rapidly transferred to other business associates, but this planning will help to ensure continuity of operations," he said.

About the Author

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee

Executive Editor, HealthcareInfoSecurity, ISMG

McGee is executive editor of Information Security Media Group's media site. She has about 30 years of IT journalism experience, with a focus on healthcare information technology issues for more than 15 years. Before joining ISMG in 2012, she was a reporter at InformationWeek magazine and news site and played a lead role in the launch of InformationWeek's healthcare IT media site.

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