FEHBP database raises privacy concerns

Thinkstock

A new Office of Personnel Management database designed to track federal employee health benefit plans could put at risk the personal information of participants, according to privacy advocates.

OPM last week announced plans for a database tool to track and evaluate the quality and cost of services provided through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. According to an Oct. 5 notice in the Federal Register, the health claims data warehouse will centralize information about FEHBP; the National Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Program, which provides coverage to those denied insurance because of a medical condition; and the Multi-State Option Plan.

The tool will collect information such as the enrollee's name, Social Security number, employment details and information about health care providers, medical diagnoses and insurance coverage. OPM will look at demographic, health and pricing trends across the programs to find ways to reduce costs, the notice said.

Privacy advocates expressed concern the database could violate patient privacy. The notice does not provide details about how the information will be stored securely, nor does it explain how the data will be stripped of identification information before being released for research purposes, said Dr. Deborah Peel, founder of the nonprofit Patient Privacy Rights.

OPM doesn't need a centralized tool to analyze FEHBP information because that data already exists with the plan providers, said Deven McGraw, director of the Health Privacy Project at the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology, adding the database presents another opportunity for outsiders to access sensitive information.

"OPM is proposing to create one big, centralized database rather than asking the plans to run analyses and give them the answers," McGraw said. "Records that used to be in one place are now in two."

She suggested OPM require health plans to provide aggregated information rather than the raw data the warehouse tool will collect.

"This could be a condition of participation in FEHBP," McGraw said. "There's no reason why they can't get plans to give them this data ... they have the authority to have queries run by plans without moving data into the middle, thereby exposing the data to risk."

According to the notice, the information could be used in law enforcement proceedings, congressional inquiries or OPM workforce studies. In some cases, individuals could be identified through the data selected, OPM said. Researchers and analysts outside government also could gain access to the information to examine health insurance trends, the notice added. McGraw and Peel both expressed concern that individuals claiming to do research could access sensitive patient data without rules or constraints.

"We do not see adequate safeguards to ensure that the aggregated records are made secure from thieves and are not used as fodder for the health data mining industry," Peel said. "This proposal is irresponsible because those in the database cannot trust that their information is secure and they have no ability to consent to research uses of their data."

OPM did not respond to requests for comment.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download
  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.