'Security issue' hits hospitals' computers

Chain operates 5 Arkansas facilities

WASHINGTON -- Computer systems across a major hospital chain operating in the U.S. and Britain were down Monday because of what the company termed an unspecified technology "security issue."

Universal Health Services Inc., which operates more than 400 hospitals and other clinical care facilities, including five in Arkansas, said in a short statement posted to its website Monday that its network was offline and doctors and nurses were resorting to "back-up processes" including paper records.

The Fortune 500 company, with 90,000 employees said "patient care continues to be delivered safely and effectively" and no patient or employee data appeared to have been "accessed, copied or misused."

UHS itself may not be a household name, but its hospitals are part of communities from Washington, D.C., to Fremont, Calif., and Orlando, Fla., to Anchorage, Alaska. Some of its facilities provide care for people coping with psychiatric conditions and substance abuse problems.

The company operates Pinnacle Pointe Behavioral Healthcare System in Little Rock, Rivendell Behavioral Health Services of Arkansas in Benton, Springwoods Behavioral Health in Fayetteville, The Bridgeway in North Little Rock and The Pointe Behavioral Health Services in Bryant.

UHS provided no details about the shutdown, but people posting to an online Reddit forum who identified themselves as employees said the chain's network was hit by ransomware overnight Sunday. The posts echoed the alarm of a clinician at a UHS facility in Washington, D.C., who described to The Associated Press a mad scramble, including anxiety over determining which patients might be infected with the virus that causes covid-19.

John Riggi, senior cybersecurity adviser to the American Hospital Association, called it a "suspected ransomware attack," adding that criminals have been increasingly targeting the networks of health care institutions during the coronavirus pandemic.

Ransomware is a growing scourge in which hackers infect networks with malicious code that scrambles data and then demand payment to restore services.

Increasingly, ransomware purveyors are downloading data from networks they infiltrate before encrypting targeted servers, using it for extortion. Earlier this month, the first known fatality related to ransomware occurred in Duesseldorf, Germany, after an attack caused IT systems to fail and a critically ill patient needing urgent admission died after she had to be taken to another city for treatment.

The company based in King of Prussia, Penn., did not immediately respond to emails seeking more information, such as whether patients had to be diverted to other hospitals.

In the U.S. alone, 764 health care providers were victimized last year by ransomware, according to data compiled by the cybersecurity firm Emsisoft. It estimates the overall cost of ransomware attacks in the U.S. to $9 billion a year in terms of recovery and lost productivity. The only way to effectively recover, for those unwilling to pay ransoms, is through diligent daily system data backups.

In an apparently unrelated cyberattack affecting a U.S. medical facility, Nebraska Medicine hospital in Omaha suffered a failure last week that led to the postponement of appointments for patients with elective procedures or other noncritical health concerns, The Omaha World-Herald reported.