In the wake of criticism from Republicans including Florida Gov. Rick Scott, the Obama administration is beefing up security measures for data submitted to "navigators" by people seeking insurance under the federal health overhaul.
Attorney General Eric Holder, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Federal Trade Commission chairwoman Edith Ramirez met with senior White House officials and several state officials on Wednesday before announcing the new plans aimed at protecting private information in advance of the Oct. 1 roll-out of online health insurance marketplaces.
"Today, we are sending a clear message that we will not tolerate anyone seeking to defraud consumers in the Health Insurance Marketplace," Sebelius said in a statement Wednesday.
Consumers will be able to report fraud through a toll-free hotline and on the website healthcare.gov. The administration plans to route complaints through a central database and set up a "rapid response" mechanism for data breaches. State and federal agencies will be able to access the hub to investigate fraud, and state and federal fraud experts will meet regularly to monitor potential fraud associated with the marketplace.
"Navigators" and "assisters" help people apply for insurance on the online marketplaces, or "exchanges," which are a crucial part of carrying out the federal Affordable Care Act.
Sebelius said the federal agencies are using the same protections already in use as safeguards for Medicaid, Medicare and the Children's Health Insurance Program.
Scott, a Republican who launched his political career fighting against the health care law, quickly issued a statement taking credit for the Obama administration's attention to the security issues, which Scott raised in a letter to congressional leaders on Monday. Scott noted that Florida "has become 'ground zero' for the frenzy of activity" to sign people up through the online exchanges. Sebelius has made Florida a frequent stopping place to promote the health care law.
"Whenever the federal government forces a brand new program this big to move this fast, mistakes are made --- just as we saw last week in Minnesota," Scott said in statement Wednesday. An employee of the state health exchange in Minnesota mistakenly sent an e-mail containing about 2,400 insurance agents' personal data, including Social Security numbers to a man applying to become a navigator.
The federal officials' security measures leave many questions unanswered, Scott said.
White House officials insisted the security measures announced Wednesday were part of the plan all along.
"This was part of our whole roll-out. We wanted to send signals before people started enrolling about the type of information they should and should not share," a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call Wednesday afternoon.
The official, who spoke on background, said that some but not all navigators are required to undergo background checks and noted that many of the groups that have contracts to act as navigators have done similar work in their communities in the past.
"It's a question of how many resources do you want to dedicate to a problem that has yet to be identified as a meaningful threat," he said.
Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler, who was at the White House meeting Wednesday, said in a statement that he and his colleagues, who will have access to the federal hub, have "extensive experience" working with federal officials to combat consumer fraud.
But Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who first raised the issue of the navigators at a Cabinet meeting last month and has made the privacy concerns a talking point on national television, said she was unaware that attorneys general were working with the administration.
"It's nice to know that the administration now takes consumer protection against health care fraud as seriously as we do, and the people deserve,'' Bondi said in an email.