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HealthCare.gov Is Secure, Says CMS Official Who Voiced Early Concerns

Maksim Kabakou/Shutterstock.com

A top information security officer at the Health and Human Services Department who expressed concern about HealthCare.gov before its Oct. 1 launch told lawmakers on Thursday she’s now convinced the site meets all government security requirements.

That endorsement is based on end-to-end security testing the Obama administration’s online health insurance marketplace underwent in mid-December, Teresa Fryer, chief information security officer at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Fryer wrote but never sent one of the key documents in the case made by Oversight Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., that HealthCare.gov contained security gaps upon launch that may still remain and could allow hackers to access the personal information of health insurance seekers.

Fryer never completed or sent that memo for two reasons, she told lawmakers on Thursday. First, she felt consumer data was less vulnerable after a series of mitigation strategies for a possible hack were introduced. Also, the responsibility for signing HealthCare.gov’s “authority to operate” document was elevated from Fryer and other technology officers to CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner.

If asked to sign an ATO for HealthCare.gov now, Fryer said, she could confidently do so.

Despite Fryer’s testimony, Issa maintained that the lack of end-to-end testing before HealthCare.gov launched may have left security vulnerabilities that endangered site visitors. He says the administration should have delayed the launch date.

That lack of testing and the drive to launch the site on schedule have been cited as factors in the website’s early dismal performance, which prevented most users from enrolling in insurance plans for the first several weeks and frustrated users through the end of November.

“For many Americans, myself included, it seems to defy common sense that a website plagued with functional problems was in fact perfectly secure by design,” Issa said.

HHS officials have maintained that, despite early performance problems, HealthCare.gov meets the government’s information security requirements. There have been no successful breaches of the site by malicious third parties, officials testified on Thursday, but they acknowledged at least 13 early instances in which the site accidentally made citizens’ personal information available to other citizens.

Following HealthCare.gov’s troubled launch, Issa subpoenaed documents from contractors on the project, which he says demonstrate security vulnerabilities were not adequately addressed.

Oversight’s ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who has also reviewed the documents, says those charges are overblown. He accused Issa on Thursday of “cherry picking” sentences from the documents to “promote a political narrative that’s inaccurate.”

Cummings and other Democrats have charged that Issa’s true aim is to depress enrollment in Obamacare so that the program is more likely to fail.

The White House hopes to have 7 million people enrolled in new insurance plans through HealthCare.gov and state-based marketplaces by the end of March, a goal that was hurt by two months of low enrollment while HealthCare.gov was plagued by glitches and undergoing repairs.  If the White House falls well beneath its enrollment goal that could raise the level of risk in insurance pools, bringing buyers’ premiums up to unaffordable levels.

Democrats have also charged that by consulting with non-government experts on the subpoenaed HealthCare.gov documents, Issa could raise the risk those documents will fall into hackers’ hands and give them a roadmap into the site. Issa shot back at those charges on Thursday, saying his staff has handled the documents securely at all times. 

(Image via Maksim Kabakou/Shutterstock.com)

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