Responding to Union Concerns, OPM Modifies Health Claims Data Warehouse "System of Records" to Protect Privacy
6/25/11: Last fall, the Union alerted federal employees about a proposal by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to create a new "system of records" known as a Health Claims Data Warehouse. This record-keeping system would have included personal information about enrollees in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), as well as enrollees in two new insurance programs covering employees in the private sector. NTEU objected at the time, in particular to the absence of adequate protections against disclosure of personal identifying information about enrollees.
OPM responded by postponing implementation of the system of records. After further study, OPM has now issued a revised notice, which addresses the concerns raised by NTEU. OPM has explained that it requires access to FEHBP health records, and maintenance of the records in a database, in order to permit it to fulfill its statutory responsibility to manage the FEHBP so as to ensure the best value for enrollees and taxpayers. The most significant improvement is that OPM is now giving assurances that only "de-identified data" (or data without the individual identifying elements) will be released outside of OPM. In addition, analysts within OPM who use the database for analysis purposes will be given only de-indentified data. Also important are the detailed systems security measures that OPM has now outlined to show that the records will be protected from inadvertent disclosure. The collected information will be somewhat more limited in scope, eliminating (for example) telephone numbers of enrollees. Finally, OPM has significantly narrowed the "routine uses" for the data, thereby limiting the circumstances under which the information can be disclosed.
One final change is that OPM will receive this information through its Office of Inspector General (OIG). The OIG will obtain the FEHBP records from health care insurers and administrators and will then process the records by running them through "technical protocols" that are designed to be efficient, secure, and cost-effective. Only at that point will the OIG provide the records to OPM for its analysis. OPM's OIG itself has long used the information for audit and investigative purposes, to detect and pursue fraud in the FEHBP.
NTEU is pleased that OPM has been responsive to its expressed concerns and that it has taken meaningful steps toward protecting the security of personal information about FEHBP enrollees.