Cybercrime , Fraud Management & Cybercrime , Healthcare

Ascension Responding to Cyberattack Affecting Clinical Care

Hospital Chain Told Business Partners to 'Temporarily' Disconnect During Response
Ascension Responding to Cyberattack Affecting Clinical Care

One of the largest health systems in the United States has taken some IT systems offline and advised business partners to disconnect from its IT environment as it responds to a cyberattack that's disrupting clinical services.

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Ascension - a nonprofit, Catholic healthcare system with 140 hospitals and 40 senior care facilities in 19 states - said it detected on Wednesday unusual activity on select technology network systems.

In an updated statement on Thursday, the St. Louis, Missouri-based health system said it is contacting its business partners "to ensure they are aware of the situation so they can take appropriate steps to safeguard their systems."

Ascension, which generated $28.3 billion in revenue last year, said it is encouraging "all business partners to coordinate with the Ascension technology partners to address any specific questions."

Access to some Ascension IT systems and clinical operations has been interrupted as the investigation and remediation process continues. The health system said it hired Mandiant to assist in the investigation and remediation process and has notified authorities.

Errol Weiss, chief security officer at the Health Information Sharing and Analysis Center, said businesses should heed Ascencion's directive to disconnect but shouldn't overreact. "Shutting down services and disconnecting from more systems than recommended will only make the incident impact worse," he said.

Health-ISAC is following the Ascension incident and is prepared to provide any information it is permitted to share as soon as possible, Weiss said.

Ascension did not immediately respond to Information Security Media Group's request for additional details about the incident and the scope of its effect.

Ransomware attacks on the healthcare sector are on the rise, said threat analyst Brett Callow of security firm Emsisoft. "For context, eight U.S. health systems/52 hospitals have been impacted by ransomware in 2024. The number for the same period in 2023 was 10/19," he said.

The Ascension cyber incident comes on the heels of the cyberattack in February on UnitedHealth Group's Change Healthcare unit, which severely disrupted the U.S. healthcare ecosystem for weeks. The company admitted paying a $22 million ransom to the BlackCat/Alphv threat actor and is still working to restore the last of more than 100 products and services it took offline during the response and recovery effort.

In the ongoing global battle against cybercrime, it has become clear that ransomware gangs will continue to seek innovative methods to attack the U.S. healthcare sector, said John Riggi, national cybersecurity adviser at the American Hospital Association.

"Any cyberattack on the healthcare sector that disrupts or delays patient care creates a risk to patient safety and crosses the line from an economic crime to a threat-to-life crime. These attacks should be aggressively pursued and prosecuted as such by the federal government," he said.

To be better prepared for the impact of these kinds of disruptive attacks, organizations need to have a robust backup recovery and response program in place to ensure that if they were also victimized and data is encrypted, they are able to access their backup data, said Yossi Rachman, senior director of security research at Semperis. "Unfortunately, I am seeing more and more instances of ransomware gangs targeting an organization's backups, because a ransom payment will almost always be paid if a company can't access its backups.”

The Change Healthcare attacks compromised backup data and systems, which complicated the company’s restoration efforts, UnitedHealth Group’s CEO Andrew Witty testified to Congress last week (see: Lawmakers Grill UnitedHealth CEO on Change Healthcare Attack).

"Hospitals are more likely to pay ransoms because they are dealing with life-and-death situations regularly," Rachman said. But "paying only emboldens the ransomware gangs and they will continue targeting your company."

About the Author

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee

Executive Editor, HealthcareInfoSecurity, ISMG

McGee is executive editor of Information Security Media Group's media site. She has about 30 years of IT journalism experience, with a focus on healthcare information technology issues for more than 15 years. Before joining ISMG in 2012, she was a reporter at InformationWeek magazine and news site and played a lead role in the launch of InformationWeek's healthcare IT media site.

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