Senators criticize HHS over security of health data

The Health and Human Services Department drew criticism at a Senate subcommittee hearing Thursday afternoon for rejecting a government auditor's recommendation that HHS craft a comprehensive approach for protecting patient data within a national health information system.

A Jan. 10 report by the Government Accountability Office stated that the department has not yet created a plan for addressing key privacy principles or outlined milestones for integrating the results of HHS' multiple, ongoing privacy-related assessments. GAO officials advised action on those issues.

HHS disagreed with the recommendations in a letter, stating that the department "believes that the tightly scripted milestones GAO recommends would impede our processes and preclude necessary public-private dialogue."

At Thursday's hearing, Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, said he was "surprised" to learn of the department's protest. As businesses, physicians and insurance carriers accelerate their health information technology activities, he said, "I fear that privacy suffers while HHS takes time to decide how to implement privacy protection."

The subcommittee convened to focus on health IT privacy matters related to the Office of Personnel Management's benefits program. It is the country's largest employer-sponsored health insurance program, covering about 8 million federal employees, retirees and their families.

Akaka asked an OPM official if current circumstances could result in an insurance plan developing an electronic health record that would not be protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Dan Green from OPM's employee and family support policy center said no, adding that he is "convinced" that contract requirements protect enrollees from inappropriate misuse of electronic health information.

Akaka highlighted arguments by witness Mark Rothstein, the chairman of an HHS advisory panel on privacy and confidentiality. Rothstein said private-sector health IT initiatives, like the system being devised by Wal-Mart and other big employers, are "usually not subject to any federal or state regulation." Rothstein, who is also director of the Institute for Bioethics, Health Policy and Law at the University of Louisville, stressed that he was giving his personal views.

Witness Rob Kolodner, the interim HHS national coordinator for health IT, said there are private entities not covered by HIPAA, adding that two HHS advisory bodies have started to consider whether certain entities not subject to the law now should be held accountable.

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, asked Kolodner if the stopgap spending bill that covers HHS for the rest of fiscal 2007 had harmed the department's progress in safeguarding privacy. Kolodner said his office has not been forced to slow in any way.

In further testimony, Rothstein recommended that Congress "condition continued appropriations" for developing a nationwide health information network on HHS "demonstrating significant progress" in resolving privacy issues.

"The health benefits of electronic health-record networks will never be realized unless the American public has a high degree of trust in network privacy protections," he said. "We can't build the network and then build the trust."

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:

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

    View
  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

    View
  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

    View
  • GBC Issue Brief: The Future of 9-1-1

    A Look Into the Next Generation of Emergency Services

    View
  • GBC Survey Report: Securing the Perimeters

    A candid survey on cybersecurity in state and local governments

    View
  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

    View
  • eBook: State & Local Cybersecurity

    CenturyLink is committed to helping state and local governments meet their cybersecurity challenges. Towards that end, CenturyLink commissioned a study from the Government Business Council that looked at the perceptions, attitudes and experiences of state and local leaders around the cybersecurity issue. The results were surprising in a number of ways. Learn more about their findings and the ways in which state and local governments can combat cybersecurity threats with this eBook.

    View

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