Politics & Policy

Obamacare’s Branch of the NSA

HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius stands behind President Barack Obama
Community organizers will use a Federal Data Hub to sign up people for subsidies — and even ballots.

President Obama has had a poor record of job creation, but at least one small economic sector is doing well: community organizing.

The Department of Health and Human Services is about to hire an army of “patient navigators” to inform Americans about the subsidized insurance promised by Obamacare and assist them in enrolling. These organizers will be guided by the new Federal Data Hub, which will give them access to reams of personal information compiled by federal agencies ranging from the IRS to the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration. “The federal government is planning to quietly enact what could be the largest consolidation of personal data in the history of the republic,” Paul Howard of the Manhattan Institute and Stephen T. Parente, a University of Minnesota finance professor, wrote in USA Today. No wonder that there are concerns about everything from identity theft to the ability of navigators to use the system to register Obamacare participants to vote.

HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius wasn’t satisfied with the $54 million in public funds allocated for navigators this year, so she tried to raise money from health-industry executives for Enroll America, the liberal nonprofit group leading the PR push for Obamacare. She had to retreat under withering criticism that she was shaking down companies that were dependent on government, a clear conflict of interest.

Because 34 states have declined to set up their own insurance “exchanges,” the job of guiding exchange enrollees in those states has been left to Washington. The identity of the groups who will get the Sebelius grants isn’t yet known, but Politico reports they are likely to include Planned Parenthood, senior-citizen advocacy organizations, and churches.

So far everything we’ve learned indicates the navigators will be flying blind, or could well be “unsafe at any speed.” In June, the Government Accountability Office reported that HHS is considering allowing navigators to assist with outreach and enrollment tasks even before completing their formal training. The reason? Like so much of Obamacare, the navigators program is behind schedule and drowning in its own complexity.

#ad#This spring, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee lawyers were also told by HHS that, despite the fact that navigators will have access to sensitive data such as Social Security numbers and tax returns, there will be no criminal background checks required for them. Indeed, they won’t even have to have high-school diplomas. Both U.S. Census Bureau and IRS employees must meet those minimum standards, if only because no one wants someone who has been convicted of identity theft getting near Americans’ personal records. But HHS is unconcerned. It points out that navigators will have to take a 20–30 hour online course about how the 1,200-page law works, which, given its demonstrated complexity, is like giving someone a first-aid course and then making him a med-school professor. “I want to assure you and all Americans that, when they fill out their [health-insurance] marketplace applications, they can trust the information they’re providing is protected,” said Marilyn Tavenner, head of HHS’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, at a congressional hearing last week. In the age of Wikileaks and IRS abuses, somehow that isn’t very comforting.

“The standards proposed by your department could result in a convicted felon receiving federal dollars and gaining access to confidential taxpayer information,” a group of nine Republican senators led by Utah’s Orrin Hatch wrote to Secretary Sebelius last month. “The same standards allow any individual who has registered with the exchange and completed two days of training to facilitate enrollment, as if the decision to purchase health insurance is similar to the decision of registering to vote.”

Indeed, voter registration is among the goals of the folks hawking Obamacare. The People’s World newspaper reports: “California’s Secretary of State Debra Bowen is designating the state’s new Health Benefit Exchange, Covered California, as a voter registration agency under the National Voter Registration Act. That means Covered California will be incorporating voter registration into every transaction — online, in-person and by phone — it has with consumers.” It seems as if some Obama supporters have found a new way to fill the void left by the bankruptcy of ACORN, the notorious left-wing voter-registration group that saw dozens of its employees in multiple states convicted of fraud.

At least the pay will be better. ACORN was infamous for stiffing its employees and even once sued the state of California to ask for an exemption from its minimum-wage law. But early reports are that the federal government will be offering navigators between $20 and $48 an hour. In many states, that’s far more than many private-sector workers with corresponding responsibilities earn.

If there is a silver lining in all of this, it is that the potential failure of the navigators program could further convince voters that Obamacare is simply unworkable. “The Obama administration wants something the federal government has never done: a computer system that connects HHS, the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security Administration, Homeland Security and perhaps other departments,” John Goodman, a health-care expert with the National Center for Policy Analysis, wrote in the Wall Street Journal in May. “For perspective, consider that the Veterans Administration converted to electronic medical records in 1998 and the VA and the Defense Department tried without success to share records until February [2013] when then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that the plan would be abandoned.”

But the consensus is that, if Obamacare isn’t repealed, the government can, with enough effort and money, get the Data Hub up and running. That concerns many members of Congress.

“Giving community organizers access to the Federal Data Hub is bad policy and potentially a danger to civil liberties,” House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan told me recently. “But it’s one of the most underreported stories I’ve seen. If people only knew about this Data Hub program, it would touch off a huge public outcry.”

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO

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