Joseph P. Harford, MS
As the health care industry continues to prepare for compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, two new and challenging obstacles are emerging: safe and legal disposal of outdated computer equipment, and digital or physical data destruction of patient information. Computer equipment comes in the form of computer monitors, hard drives, printers, copiers, and so on. In the past, this equipment may have been placed into storage, donated to a school, or sent to the dumpster. All of these methods of disposal do not address the environmental or legal responsibilities of the health care organization in question.
Three questions need to be asked before disposing of outdated, broken, or unneeded computer equipment:
- Does your organization have a plan in place for the removal or disposal of outdated computer equipment?
- Does this plan adhere to appropriate environmental laws for the equipment removal or recycling?
- Does this plan follow the laws regarding the privacy of patient data that may still reside on the computers in question?
In 1976, Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Also known as RCRA, this law addresses the proper disposal of hazardous material. Computer monitors contain an average of 5 to 8 pounds of lead in the glass, while computer equipment contains mercury, cadmium, arsenic, and other substances classified as hazardous material. Therefore, the dumping of large volumes of this equipment into a landfill is against the law. In the summer of 2002, the EPA filed fines for the improper disposal of hazardous waste that included computer monitors. These cases were:
- Manhattan College, $111,199 — New York, N.Y., Complaint No. 02074; and,
- Pratt Institute, $301,000 — New York, N.Y., Complaint No. 02038.
It is estimated that by 2004 there will be 350 million obsolete computers in the United States with no clear channel for removal, recycling, or disposal. This volume of equipment not only poses an environmental nightmare but also a challenge regarding the protection of privacy. Many states across the nation are attempting to enact legislation that will control the disposal of this equipment. Massachusetts and New Jersey have created a ban on dumping this type of equipment into landfills. Pennsylvania will soon be announcing the requirement of a permit for companies that want to be involved with electronic recycling.
Health care organizations may find the internal tasks of computer recycling to be a daunting task. While the task of computer recycling is not impossible to manage on your own, this article demonstrates why using a reputable recycler is an option that you will want to consider. It is still mandatory to perform a level of due diligence on that vendor, but it is time well spent in light of the potential environmental and confidentiality liabilities.
Although not directly addressed by HIPAA, the proper recycling of computer equipment is just as important as following the guidelines for document storage or document destruction. The removal and recycling of computer equipment should be partnered with the need to properly and securely destroy private patient information. Health care organizations are aware of the need to work with a trustworthy document storage and destruction company. However, in many cases the electronic source from which the paper documents came is forgotten. There have been numerous cases where improperly "cleansed" hard drives — with sensitive information intact — have been inadvertently given away. Two such cases involved the state government of Pennsylvania and a Veterans Administration hospital in Indianapolis. In both of these cases there was not a clear methodology or process in place that ensured identification, inventory management, destruction, and certification.
Data destruction is not as simple and straightforward as "formatting" the hard drive of a computer. In fact, simple formatting of the hard drive is in no way secure, complete, or reliable. In some cases, internal staff is responsible for the destruction of this data on the hard drives of computers. This practice is not only unreliable but also irresponsible when considering the fiduciary responsibility that a health care provider has to patients. The U.S. Department of Defense has set forth standards for both the electronic and physical destruction of data that resides on a computer hard drive. These standards are reliable and secure. The health care industry may consider these standards for adoption when completing the task of secure data destruction.
The identification, inventory management, destruction, and certification of private data should be left in the hands of those companies that provide that service as part of their core competence. The ideal situation is to identify an electronics recycler that can also perform certified digital or physical data destruction services. Simply purchasing software or removing and destroying the hard drive does not constitute methodology necessary to protect an organization from an information breach. When choosing a recycling or destruction vendor consider the following items:
- landfill policy;
- employee training;
- background review and bonding; and,
- data destruction practices and insurance coverage.
Information solicited by a potential recycler or destruction vendor should be the same that is collected about the document storage or destruction vendor already working for an organization. As health care privacy continues to evolve, it is essential that a reputable and trusted vendor be chosen to manage the task of computer recycling and secure data destruction: liability associated with improper computer disposal or data loss remains with the accused institution.
Joseph P. Harford, MS, is the vice president of sales and marketing for Reclamere. He can be reached at (814) 684-5505 or via e-mail at email@example.com.