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October opening of insurance marketplaces in jeopardy

Published: Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013 10:04 a.m. CDT

(MCT) WASHINGTON — The opening of the health insurance marketplaces in October — key to Obamacare — is in jeopardy because of looming questions about information security. The problem stems from tight deadlines that must be met to ensure the security of data moving through an information system that supports the marketplaces, sometimes referred to as exchanges, according to a new government watchdog report.

At a cost of $394 million, the federal data-services hub will route requests from the marketplaces to existing federal and state databases.

The Obama administration had expected Tony Trenkle, the chief information officer for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, to decide Sept. 4 whether information routed through the hub was secure from hackers and identity thieves. But a new report by the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services says that decision now is expected Sept. 30, only a day before open enrollment on the marketplaces is scheduled to begin.

Any further delays, the report said, mean the chief information officer may not have enough time to gauge the security of data transfers. The Obama administration and private contractors are testing the data hub for defects and vulnerabilities, but a draft report with the results of the testing isn’t due until Sept. 20, the report noted.

If the tests find security problems, the information officer could delay the marketplace opening or decide to open the insurance exchanges with less-than-optimal assurances that users’ personal information is adequately protected.

In a written response to the report, Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator Marilyn Tavenner said her agency was “conducting internal security-testing reviews and fixing system weaknesses.” She said the agency “is confident the hub will be operationally secure and it will have an authority to operate prior to Oct. 1.”

The report noted that the agency is “working with very tight deadlines to ensure that security measures for the hub are assessed, tested and implemented” by Oct. 1, when key aspects of the Affordable Care Act kick in.

The HHS report is the latest government analysis to show that work on the marketplaces is behind schedule. In July, two reports by the Government Accountability Office found that HHS had missed numerous deadlines for the computer and technical work that’s necessary to make the marketplaces function properly in the 34 states where the federal government will operate them.

Both GAO reports said the missed deadlines might not affect implementation, but that “additional missed deadlines closer to the start of enrollment could do so.”

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©2013 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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