Obamacare data hub is secure and ready to roll

Agency says Federal Services Data Hub exchange system has passed all required security tests

The central system built to support Affordable Care Act (ACA) health insurance exchanges has successfully completed security testing and is set begin operating on October 1, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced Wednesday.

The CMS said that an independent security controls assessment conducted last month found that the Federal Services Data Hub complies with all federal security requirements.

The privacy and security of consumer data is a "top priority" for the CMS and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which will implement the ACA, which was passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in 2010. "The Hub and its associated systems have been built with state-of-the art business processes based on federal and industry standards," the CMS said in a statement.

The data hub, often been referred to as the Obamacare Hub, has been a focal point of concern by several privacy and advocacy groups.

Described by CMS as a routing tool, the hub is designed to let state and federal facilitated healthcare marketplaces quickly verify the eligibility of individuals seeking insurance coverage. The system connects healthcare insurance exchanges with numerous federal government databases at agencies like the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Services, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Hub itself will not store any data; it's designed to move information between the federal database systems and the marketplaces. "The Hub increases efficiency and security by eliminating the need for each Marketplace, Medicaid agency....to set up separate data connections to each database," the CMS said.

Some critics, though, contend that the Hub is a recipe for disaster.

For instance, The Heritage Foundation earlier this month cautioned that the data hub could expose many Americans to identity fraud. Those using the system to verify insurance eligibility will have easy access to sensitive personal information including bank account, Social Security and insurance data, it said.

Advocacy group Citizens Council for Health Freedom earlier this year contended data security is impossible given the interconnectedness of the hub system. While government officials tout health insurance exchanges as innocuous, easy-to-use portals, they are in reality extensive government data-sharing systems that lack security controls, the group had warned in a statement.

The CMS, meanwhile, contends that the hub includes several features that ensure security and privacy of data traversing through it. For instance, the insurance marketplace systems that connect to the Hub will employ sensors and event monitoring tools to continuously monitor for anomalous activity.

The tools will be capable of detecting and mitigating "irregular behavior and unauthorized system changes," the CMS noted, without adding specifics about the tools.

"If a security incident occurs, an Incident Response capability would be activated, which allows for the tracking, investigation, and reporting of incidents. This allows CMS and the Department of Health and Human Services to quickly identify security incidents and ensure that the relevant law enforcement authorities, such as the HHS Office of Inspector General Cyber Crimes Unit, are notified for purposes of possible criminal investigation," the agency noted.

In a statement, Congressman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, welcomed the CMS announcement.

"I am pleased that the Administration has completed security testing of its healthcare exchange data hub ahead of schedule," Thompson noted. "This will give confidence to those shopping for healthcare starting October 1st that the government will ensure their privacy."

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His email address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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