Amid fear, feds pledge privacy for Idaho exchange

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Federal officials insisted Wednesday that people seeking coverage via Idaho’s online health insurance exchange starting next week shouldn’t fear for their privacy, despite last-minute concerns among foes of President Barack Obama’s health overhaul that more should be done to protect personal information.

The Idaho exchange’s 19-member board will vote Monday on whether the exchange, which is using a federal data hub to process enrollees’ personal and income data to determine if they qualify for federal subsidies, is secure enough to begin enrolling participants Tuesday.

Board members including Boise insurance agent Tom Shores told The Associated Press they could delay the exchange’s launch beyond Tuesday, the official start date, if they aren’t convinced.

The fears are being fueled, in part, by Idaho’s U.S. Senate delegation. Last week, Republican Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo announced a proposal to halt exchanges across the country in their tracks, until inspectors from the U.S. Government Accountability Office verify that the federal data hub’s privacy provisions are adequate.

But U.S. Department of Health and Human Services officials said Wednesday that nothing has changed since Sept. 6, when the hub received authorization to operate following an independent review of its security protocols.

“The final certification has been completed,” said Stephanie Magill, a regional press officer for HHS’ Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services in Seattle. Federal agencies have “implemented the appropriate procedures and safeguards necessary for the hub to operate securely on Oct. 1,” she added.

Shores, a Boise insurance broker whose business includes some 4,000 individual and group insurance policies, said so much conflicting information has left him skeptical that federal privacy promises are as ironclad as advertised.

“We’re all in this waiting mode, trying to determine if any time soon the federal system is going to be up and running, as it’s supposed to,” he said Tuesday.

In their proposed legislation, Crapo and Risch, both ardent Affordable Care Act foes, raise the specter of federal security programs run amok, including those overseen by the National Security Agency, to undermine Health and Human Service’s pledge of privacy for sensitive tax and medical information.

In the minority, however, their measure’s chances of actually becoming law are minimal.

“Is it politics? Yes and no,” Crapo’s spokesman, Lindsay Nothern, said Wednesday. “We do have a larger concern about the misuse of information. We’re just saying, there seems to be a growing trend of playing kind of fast and loose with people’s personal information.”

Idaho exchange board chairman Stephen Weeg conceded in a political environment shaped partly by the drama surrounding NSA leaker Edward Snowden, people will naturally be suspicious of the government’s ability to protect data.

But Weeg is confident “unless some absolute insanity happens,” his board on Monday will certify the exchange’s security to Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, as Idaho’s law requires before enrollment begins.

“Do we have sufficient comfort level in the steps that have been taken by the federal government and Idaho’s exchange to meet a prudent person’s expectation of privacy?” he said. “I think we’re at that point.”

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, an exchange board member and former health insurance executive, contends exchange participants will likely be able to count on more robust protections than those afforded even by existing medical privacy laws.

“I’ve worked in health care, I’ve worked physician’s offices,” said Rusche, a pediatrician. “It is my expectation that security will be much better than in either of those places.”

In an interview Friday, Idaho exchange director Amy Dowd also told the AP she’s been assured by her federal colleagues she’ll be able to enroll people in insurance coverage Tuesday.

“We have heard no indication that there will be delays,” Dowd said.

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