Covered California Abuses Privacy Rights of Consumers
Covered California, California's health exchange, is sharing tens of thousands of names, addresses, and phone numbers with insurance companies despite the consumers not granting their consent for them to do so.
Consumers who visited the site and may have partially registered but not purchased insurance are seeing their personal information given out to companies because Covered California believes it will help people sign up before the December 23 deadline.
In other words, they're only trying to be helpful.
Raising concerns about consumer privacy, California's health exchange has given insurance agents the names and contact information for tens of thousands of people who went online to check out coverage but didn't ask to be contacted.
The Covered California exchange said it started handing out this consumer information this week as part of a pilot program to help people enroll ahead of a Dec. 23 deadline to have health insurance in place by Jan. 1.
State officials said they are only trying to help potential customers find insurance and sign up in time. But some insurance brokers and consumers who were contacted said they were astonished by the state's move.
"I'm shocked and dumbfounded," said Sam Smith, an Encino insurance broker and president of the California Assn. of Health Underwriters, an industry group.
Smith said he was under the impression from the exchange that these consumers had requested assistance. He received the names of two consumers this week but has not yet contacted them.
"These people would have a legitimate complaint," Smith said.
The names provided include people who started an insurance application on the Covered California website since enrollment launched Oct. 1, but for whatever reason never picked a health plan or completed the sign-up process.
The state said it provided information on tens of thousands of people who logged into the state's website, but it didn't know the exact number.
The exchange said agents were given names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses if available.
No other information on the application, such as Social Security numbers, income and other personal details, was shared, according to the exchange.
Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, acknowledged that these consumers did not ask to be contacted by the state or its certified insurance agents. But he said the outreach program still complies with privacy laws and it was reviewed by the exchange's legal counsel.
"I can imagine some people may be upset," Lee said in an interview Friday. "But I can see a lot of people will be comforted and relieved at getting the help they need to navigate a confusing process."
This is a drop in the bucket. In fact, it's a feature, not a bug, of Obamacare that personal, private data of Americans be widely distributed -- even delicate, personal health information.
Ellen Wu, executive director of the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, said health plans are sitting on a mountain of data. Why not look at who among their customers has diabetes, for example, and target interventions to them, Wu asked.
“The general sense is absolutely we have to treat this data appropriately,” Wu said. “It must be confidential and have the right protections, but it’s also important that it’s shared and analyzed. One is not exclusive of the other.”
And for Californians, it's only the beginning. This is from the Covered California website:
In contracts with health insurers, the state health insurance exchange requires health plans to work with Covered California "to determine how data can best be collected and used to support improving health equity."
The exchange seeks to reduce health disparities across:
Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee earlier this year said that the exchange seeks to be "a results-driven organization, including looking at how we are promoting better health and health equity while lowering costs for all Californians."
Apparently, this goal of sharing our personal medical information to eliminate "disparities" across racial and gender lines is just another part of Obamacare where we had to read it to know what's in it:
The federal health care law broadly requires government to report on health care disparities.
Covered California structured its contract in a way that the agency says allows it to obtain protected information from insurance companies without violating another federal law governing privacy of health information, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
A previous version of the model contract indicates that the exchange initially was after more information than currently contemplated and on a more frequent basis.
It would have required insurers to submit all claims – covering everything from medical procedures to prescribed drugs – on a quarterly basis to the exchange or a designated recipient. By 2015, it wanted claims broken down by race, ethnicity, gender, primary language, disability status and sexual orientation.
The privacy breach by Covered California is all the more remarkable for their casual reaction to the outraged response. Given this kind of attitude, it appears that our personal, private, health information is in the very best of hands.