Breach leaves docs at risk

By Molly Merrill
05:17 PM

Some 850,000 physicians and other providers across the country are still in the process of being notified of a data breach that occurred to the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association database in August.

The breach occurred after a BCBSA employee transferred provider data information onto their personal laptop, and then the laptop containing the unencrypted provider data was stolen.

As part of a national program, BCBSA maintains a database of Blue Plan providers so that members may obtain healthcare services while traveling or living in another service area.

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The stolen file included the name, address, tax identification number and national provider identifier (NPI) number for every physician in the country contracted with a Blues-affiliated insurance plan. According to reports, about 16 percent to 22 percent of the physicians listed – as many as 187,000 - used their Social Security numbers as a tax identification number (TIN) or NPI number.

State and federal laws, including the recently enacted federal HITECH Act, require notification of individuals affected by data breach incidents.

According to Tara Murray, a Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts spokeswoman, there has been no inappropriate use of the data at this time.

Local BCBS plans whose providers use their Social Security numbers as their TIN are being offered free credit monitoring services through Experian, a Schaumburg, Ill.-based credit- monitoring agency. 

The Boston Globe reported that the data breach might be most serious in Massachusetts because doctors practicing in that state are more likely to use their Social Security numbers as their business TIN. Physicians in Massachusetts are being urged to apply for a new tax identification number.

Mario E. Motta, MD, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, thinks it’s a good idea, and he is advising doctors in Massachusetts to apply for a new TIN.

However, he recognizes it could be a big deal for physicians because it can take health insurers more than three months to four months for the change to take effect, which means that a physician would not get paid during that time.

“Getting a new tax ID number is the easy part, it is utilizing it that is the difficult part,” he said. “Getting them (health insurers) to switch over the payment can be a bureaucratic nightmare.”

The least BCBSA could do is make the transition as easy as possible for doctors, Motta said.

However, Murray said BCBSA has not identified any issues that would cause a delay in provider payment related to changing their tax ID.

Frank Rosenbloom, MD, who practices general internal and hospital medicine in Portland, Ore., calls the assertion “preposterous.”

“It takes three months to get a new TIN. Then, all the private insurers have to change their records. When I became a primary care physician, I was not paid anything for over three months because I had to get a new TIN,” he says.