- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 19, 2009

RICHMOND | A hacker’s theft of millions of Virginia’s most sensitive prescription-drug records isn’t slowing Sen. Mark Warner’s push for electronic medical records.

The former governor convened a conference in Richmond on Monday about the medical and cost-saving benefits of digitizing hundreds of millions of patient records nationally.

“We’ve been talking about this subject, policymakers have, for decades: how can we make sure that we can bring the power of information technology to our health care system,” Mr. Warner told reporters at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Mr. Warner, who made a fortune as an early investor in cell phones and information technology, was among the earliest apostles of e-medical records. The federal economic stimulus package that Mr. Warner supported provides nearly $20 billion to begin the process of digitizing medical records and sharing them over secure networks.

Having such data instantly available to doctors anywhere would eliminate the need for expensive tests patients have already had and allow doctors to make smarter, faster treatment decisions, advocates say.

“Every Virginian has been frustrated when you go to the hospital and you get asked exactly the same question 10 different times in the first few hours you’re there,” Mr. Warner said before addressing the conference of several hundred medical professionals, hospital and health care interests and educators.

Just 2 1/2 weeks earlier, a hacker broke into what the Virginia Department of Health Professions thought was a secure computer database for the Prescription Monitoring Program.

The hacker accessed millions of individual prescription records about such powerful and closely controlled drugs as Oxycodone, morphine, Vicodin and Valium. The intruder also left a taunting note on the DHP Web site demanding a $10 million ransom for the return of the data. State officials said the information was fully backed up and never lost. Gov. Tim Kaine said there will be no payments.

The FBI and Virginia State Police have begun a national criminal investigation into the security breach that could provide thieves a menu of names and home addresses of people to whom those drugs are prescribed.

“One of the keys is how we ensure security and privacy,” Mr. Warner said.

“Just as we see that in financial records you can never get 100 percent protection, we have a very efficiently functioning system around financial records [and] around other critical information,” said Mr. Warner, who is four months into his Senate term.

“If you have a national platform that involves security and privacy, I think you take a giant step toward making sure what happened here in Virginia doesn’t happen elsewhere,” he said.

When officials from DHP and Mr. Kaine’s administration appeared before the House Appropriations Committee last week to explain how the breach happened, and frustrated lawmakers wanted to know why a firewall put in place by the Virginia Information Technologies Agency and its contractors didn’t foil the attack.

Legislators found no comfort from the assurance they were given that the DHP’s servers were among the most secure in state government.

VITA was Mr. Warner’s idea for consolidating the state’s disparate and far-flung computer networks and technology procurement systems under one agency. It went online during his term as governor from 2002 to 2006.

“You’re never going to have an infallible system. But … you’ve got to make sure that you learn if there are breaches like this and improve and protect the system,” he said.

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