Health Net Inc., one of the nation’s largest publicly traded managed health care companies, recently notified authorities and informed affected persons, with a statement on its website, that the unencrypted personal information of 1.5 million current and former members, stored on a portable disk drive, is missing from the company’s Connecticut office. The company is now working to send written notices to affected individuals in four states—Arizona, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Coordinating a data breach response, responding to the questions and complaints of affected persons, and negotiating with vendors to provide monitoring services are time-consuming, tedious tasks that require a strong sense of an organization’s public image, good judgment and excellent communication skills. Having the right person to drive this effort internally is critical.

Additionally, companies that experience data breaches increasingly are becoming subject to federal and state agency inquiries. In this case, at least two states have announced investigations. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said his office will investigate the loss of the portable disk drive that he believed held the unencrypted health, personal, and financial information of some 450,000 Connecticut residents. Blumenthal also vowed to probe a six-month lag in notifying affected individuals of the breach. In a letter dated November 19, 2009, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard’s office requested information about the breach from Health Net, also noting the time between the breach and when affected persons were notified. It is critical that an organization’s Privacy Officer be prepared to respond to these inquiries, with the assistance of internal or external counsel when appropriate.

A breach of personal information, particularly one of this size, reminds us of the need for companies to take steps to implement policies and practices that safeguard sensitive personal and company confidential information. The first step is to appoint a person to spearhead a data breach response– typically the Chief Privacy or Information Officer. Among the duties and responsibilities of a Privacy Officer is being the company’s first line of defense when responding to a data breach, including directing the investigation of the breach, coordinating the notification process, addressing the concerns of affected persons and responding to government agency inquiries. For a sample Privacy Officer job description, click here.