White House to UnitedHealth hack CEO: more emergency funds now

In a meeting with UnitedHealth Group’s CEO Tuesday, the White House pushed for the healthcare giant to offer up more emergency funding to help bail out cash-strapped hospitals and medical providers unable to pay their bills.

The meeting was attended by White House officials, UnitedHealth’s CEO Andrew Witty, as well as hospital and health insurance representatives, according to sources, the Washington Post first reported.

The request follows an open letter released by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) this past Sunday urging the parent company of Change Healthcare – who suffered a major hack of its systems on February 21st – to “take responsibility” and expedite the delivery of those funds to prevent a catastrophic impact on the US healthcare industry.

“We are committed to providing relief for people affected by this malicious attack on the US health system,” the UnitedHealth Group (UHG) CEO said in a statement days earlier.

A UHG spokesperson told Cybernews Tuesday that its “new Optum temporary funding experience is now live, making it easier for users to determine funding eligibility and then apply for funding,” adding that payments have been going out already.

UnitedHealth hack - Optum Health temp assistance webpage
Optum Temporary Funding Assistance Program is live for providers. Optum, a division of UHG, acquired Change Healthcare in 2022. Image by Cybernews.

“All of us at UnitedHealth Group feel a deep sense of responsibility for recovery and are working tirelessly to ensure that providers can care for their patients and run their practices and that patients can get their medications. We’re determined to make this right as fast as possible,” Witty said.

Besides ensuring that “no provider is compromised by their cash flow challenges stemming from this cyberattack on Change Healthcare,” the HHS department listed at least half a dozen steps in total the company should take to satisfy the department.

Steps include providing advanced payment to providers, more frequent and transparent communication with the entire healthcare community, expedite the ease, access, and activation of all UHG programs set up to alleviate the payment pause impact while prioritizing under-resourced and lower-margin providers.

The HHS also urged all insurance companies to follow suit and consider making interim payments to impacted providers and simplifying the cumbersome payment and authorization process during the crisis.

“While we believe payers have a unique responsibility and opportunity to address the challenge before us, we urge action on the part of any health care entity that can step up,” the HHS wrote in the March 10th letter.

UnitedHealth hack - HHS Letter
hhs.gov. Image by Cybernews.

Cash-strapped healthcare industry reeling

Payments to thousands of US healthcare providers have been frozen, leaving smaller practices in financial straits, while larger hospitals, at first able to absorb the costs, are starting to show signs of wear. There are fears that the fallout will ultimately impact patient care.

The HHS letter echoes the sentiments of major US healthcare organizations and hospital administrators, who compared the impact on the American healthcare system to levels during the COVID-19 pandemic, urging the US government to do more.

The American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Hospital Association (AHA) last week called UHG’s temporary assistance program "not even a band-aid" and the terms of its loan program "shockingly onerous."

Change is one of the largest health technology firms in the US, providing medical, patient, and pharmacy software platforms, which include billing and payment systems, for thousands of healthcare providers, small and large, across the nation.

System recovery slow, but steady

In an update on its website on Friday, March 8th, UHG said it was working “across the health system to make clinical, administrative and financial processes simpler and more efficient for payers, providers and consumers… and we have multiple workarounds to ensure provider claims are addressed and people have access to the medications and care they need.”

The update also answered a slew of questions and provided links to the various programs and workarounds set up by the company, including the temporary assistance program, how to securely upload large files, and an Impacted Applications Status Dashboard.

The company which had launched an alternate ePrescribing site for providers last week, also provided information on projected restoration of its key services.

UnitedHealth update
UnitedHealth Group webpage on Change Healthcare Cyber Response. Image by Cybernews.

Change processes about 50% of medical claims in the US for around 900,000 physicians, 33,000 pharmacies, 5,500 hospitals, and 600 laboratories, handling the information of about 85 million patients, according to reports.

The attack, carried out by the ALPHV/BlackCat ransomware group, forced Change to shut down systems, first causing a week-long prescription backlog at thousands of US pharmacies, and froze payment processing at even more US healthcare providers.

The Russian-linked ALPHV/BlackCat gang, who allegedly received a $22 million ransom payment from UHG, has since dropped off the dark web after taking the funds and ghosting its many affiliates in what security experts believe, was a pre-planned exit strategy.

One of those ransomware affiliates claims to have retained at least 4TB of sensitive data (out of 6TB) claimed to have been stolen in the breach, leaving the personal information of millions of UHG patients at risk.

“Overall, this incident is a reminder of the interconnectedness of the domestic health care ecosystem and of the urgency of strengthening cybersecurity resiliency across the ecosystem,” the HHS stated.

An HHS spokesperson also said meetings were being held daily since the cyber incident took place.