Privacy Advocates Decry Database

Privacy advocates are raising concerns about a planned government database that would represent the largest compilation of personal patient data in the nation.

The planned database would compile insurance claims for more than 8 million federal workers and their dependents who are insured by about 230 private health insurance plans through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP), according to a Dec. 6 article produced jointly by Kaiser Health News and The Washington Post. The database also would collect information about enrollees in high-risk insurance pools set up by the Health and Human Services Department and private, multistate exchanges being developed for individuals and small businesses.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) would develop the database by 2014 as part of the new healthcare law. The agency would analyze IT-enabled data with the goal of improving quality, reducing costs and spotting potential fraud, the article said. Cutting annual premium growth by 0.1 percent for three years running would save the federal employee health plan $1.25 billion over 10 years, projects OPM Director John Berry.

OPM plans to analyze the patient information itself and to make it available to other federal agencies, according to the article, which cites an Oct. 5 OPM Federal Register notice. Concern about the use and potential vulnerability of the vast database of personal patient and treatment information has galvanized resistance from the American Civil Liberties Union, Consumers Union and the American Federation of Government Employees, among others.

OPM has responded by considering limits on federal agencies' access to the database, which would have been available to law enforcement and congressional inquiries, among other "routine uses," according to Kaiser Health News.

OPM also has agreed to extend the public comment period to Dec. 15 and to consider sharing more details of how the data will be protected from security breaches.

NEXT STORY: From the Sea - Synthetically?