Government Officials at Odds Over Hawaii Health Connector

Lawmakers claim that the Hawaii Health Connector did not have a security assessment prior to its Oct. 15 launch, placing the personal information that consumers provide to sign up for health insurance at potential risk.

by Derrick DePledge, McClatchy News Service / April 7, 2014
Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie dismissed claims that the Hawaii Health Connector put consumers' personal information at risk. Flickr/Governor Neil Abercrombie

Gov. Neil Abercrombie on Friday struck back at U.S. House Republicans who alleged that the Hawaii Health Connector did not complete adequate security testing before launching in October, placing consumers at risk of identity theft and fraud.

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.; U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio; and U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla.; sent letters in March to Hawaii and nine other states and the District of Columbia complaining of potential security lapses during the rollout of health care exchanges — like the Hawaii Health Connector — in the federal Affordable Care Act.

The lawmakers claimed that the Hawaii Health Connector did not have a security assessment prior to its Oct. 15 launch, placing the personal information that consumers provide to sign up for health insurance at potential risk. The lawmakers asked Abercrombie for documents and communications related to the health exchange.

But Sanjeev "Sonny" Bhagowalia, the state's chief adviser on technology and cybersecurity, and Tom Matsuda, the interim executive director of the Hawaii Health Connector, have disputed the allegations, countering that the Connector had passed the security certifications required by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services before the launch.

Abercrombie, a Democrat who served in the U.S. House for two decades before being elected governor, dismissed the House Republican claims on Friday.

"Your letter is full of mistakes, misrepresentations, omissions and false assertions," Abercrombie wrote Issa, Jordan and Lankford. "Your letter omits important facts related to the Hawaii Health Connector (Connector) and takes information out of context, misrepresenting the status of the Connector with respect to system security and authority to connect to the Federal Data Services Hub. Because of your flawed assumptions and mistakes, you have predictably reached erroneous conclusions.

"With a little due diligence, you and your committee staffers could easily have avoided these errors," the governor wrote. "Instead your letter appears to be a classic case of ‘ready, fire, aim.'"

Abercrombie told the lawmakers that the state would process their request for information under the state's open records law, which requires fees to cover the cost of producing documents.

While Abercrombie and other state and Connector officials flatly rejected the lawmakers' claims, information released by the Connector on Friday to accompany the governor's response shows why the lawmakers are concerned: some health exchanges were launched without an independent security assessment.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services allowed health exchanges to be launched in October with a risk assessment or self-assessment of security pending an independent third-­party assessment. The health exchanges had to show, however, plans to complete independent third-party assessments of security by the end of March, six months into the enrollment process.

But the Hawaii Health Connector says the extension put no one here at risk.

"Hawaii has had no major security incidents since going live," according to the Connector. "There has been no identity theft, fraud, or significant security incidents."

Issa and other Republicans have relentlessly attacked the Affordable Care Act on all fronts, based on policy objections and as a political strategy intended to undermine President Barack Obama and Democrats who support the health care law ahead of the mid­term elections.

Obama celebrated the announcement last week that 7.1 million people nationally had signed up for health insurance during the first enrollment period that ended in March, satisfying an initial target.

But health exchanges in several states, including Hawaii, are still having difficulty.

The Hawaii Health Connector, which has received $204.3 million in federal grant money, had enrolled just 7,861 people for health insurance by the March deadline.

Matsuda told Issa's U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Thursday that the state's enrollment was related to the state's low number of uninsured. The state's Prepaid Health Care Act of 1974 requires businesses to provide health insurance to full-time workers, a mandate that has given the state among the highest rates of health insurance coverage in the nation.

Matsuda has said that the Hawaii Health Connector is not sustainable beyond this year. He has said that the Connector will seek a state innovation waiver in 2017 to better tailor the federal health care law to the state's insurance market.

State lawmakers and the Abercrombie administration are also examining options to improve the Connector, an independent, private nonprofit that manages the health exchange.

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