HHS cybersecurity initiative paralyzed by ethics, contracting investigation

A fledgling HHS initiative to protect the nation’s health care system from cyberattack has been paralyzed by the removal of its two top officials amid allegations of favors and ethical improprieties.

The executive running the Health Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center was put on administrative leave in September, while his deputy left the government. An HHS official says the agency is investigating irregularities and possible fraud in contracts they signed.

The two executives, Leo Scanlon and Maggie Amato, allege they were targeted by disgruntled government employees and private-sector companies worried the cyber center would take away some of their business.

What is not in dispute is that their departures have put the center’s work on hold and left many health care officials worried about its fate at a time when cyberattacks on hospitals and other health care institutions have become increasingly prevalent. A ransomware attack last summer cost pharmaceutical giant Merck nearly $300 million in lost revenues and other costs in the third quarter of 2017 alone. More than a dozen U.S. hospitals have been hit by ransomware attacks since 2016, forcing them to delay surgeries or use paper records while their computers are on the fritz.

The paralysis of the cyber center is “a step backwards,” said James Routh, the chair of NH-ISAC, a private-sector group that distributes information about digital attacks to its health care customers. The cyber center, whose activities were designed to complement work done by NH-ISAC, “had solid, strong leadership and now it doesn’t. The industry is hurt by that.”

Scanlon, the deputy HHS chief information security officer, and Amato, the director of the center, began building it late in 2016 so that HHS would have a way of sharing information about digital threats like ransomware with the health care sector.

Scanlon and others argued that the health care industry needed cyber help directly from HHS, which could communicate clearly in the language of the industry while coordinating with the rest of the government.

The center debuted in May and immediately claimed success. While much of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service was ravaged by the “WannaCry” ransomware attack that month, the United States’ health care system emerged relatively unscathed.

Many in industry praised the new center for broadcasting useful information. Scanlon testified in a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing that the center played an integral role in repelling the attack although it wasn’t fully set up yet.

“While this was the first time HHS had organized itself in this way for a cybersecurity incident, we believe that it has set a standard on how to manage cybersecurity incidents,” he testified.

Yet controversy immediately stalked the center. First, many wondered whether it duplicated existing organizations that share information about bugs and patches. DHS hosts a nationwide information-sharing center, and the health care industry has two prominent cyber threat-sharing groups, NH-ISAC and the HITRUST Alliance.

Some worried that the HHS center would just confuse or burden health care security officials already dealing with cyber threat alerts from Homeland Security and the private-sector groups.

“There’s almost a weariness in the private sector [about information-sharing efforts],” Wiley Rein attorney Megan Brown said over the summer. NH-ISAC warned in July of an “already crowded government information sharing space” that is already “awash in bulletins” when a threat emerges.