OPM improves health database security

The Office of Personnel Management has beefed up the security of federal employee health information collected to help improve the government's insurance program, but some data could remain at risk, according to privacy experts.

OPM in October 2010 announced plans for a database tool to track and evaluate the quality and cost of services provided through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. The agency earlier this month issued revised notices addressing concerns that the database -- which would store information such as the enrollee's name, Social Security number, employment details, health care providers, medical diagnoses and insurance coverage -- could violate patient privacy.

Harley Geiger, policy counsel at the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology, said the updated notices show improved transparency, privacy and security, as well as stricter limits on the amount of health information OPM will make available. The original notice stated that information could be used in law enforcement proceedings, congressional inquiries or OPM workforce studies, as well as made available to researchers and analysts outside government examining health insurance trends. In some cases, individuals could be identified through the data selected, the notice said.

Information still would be accessible for law enforcement and fraud detection, but OPM would create a clear division between the data used for research and analysis and that used for audits. The agency also would prohibit congressional inquiries, mask identities in data released to researchers and eliminate data collection from the Multistate Option Plan and the National Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Program, which provides coverage to those denied insurance because of a medical condition. Privacy experts note fundamental change still is needed, however.

"It's unclear why OPM needs identifiable data for its purposes," Geiger said. "We had suggested they move toward a decentralized database model, where it leaves the data with health plans rather than collect a copy of the data so it's not in one giant pot."

OPM's revisions still fall short of strong privacy standards, said Dr. Deborah Peel, founder of the nonprofit Patient Privacy Rights, noting the agency needs strict monitoring and oversight of contractors performing fraud audits and a clear process for protecting identities. Instead of releasing health information for research purposes, OPM could conduct inquiries internally and release only the results, she said.

"The lack of patient control over personal health data has a chilling effect on the willingness to seek treatment and to share information," Peel said in an email. "The more the public learns about data releases for research without consent, the more they will oppose electronic health systems and research . . . Federal employees' claims and health data should be used only as specified by contract, and penalties, oversight and enforcement are essential for trust in the FEHBP."

National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley applauded the changes, noting stricter security measures and a narrower scope of data to be collected will better protect FEHBP enrollees' information.

"Taken together, these changes are a substantive improvement in the earlier proposal in that the information can still be put to effective use while the need to recognize and respect employee privacy rights is being addressed," Kelley said.

OPM Director John Berry in March said the database will be up and running this year, adding that the tool will help the agency better understand factors driving health care costs.

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:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

    Download
  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download

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