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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration announced a high-level effort to reassure Americans about the privacy and security of the information submitted under the new health care law, hoping to blunt complaints from Republican opponents that enough isn't being done to protect consumer data.
Attorney General Eric Holder, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Federal Trade Commission chairwoman Edith Ramirez and other federal and state officials met Wednesday at the White House to discuss security measures designed to keep scammers and identity thieves from taking advantage of what could be millions of Americans attempting to enroll for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act starting in October.
The law's Republican opponents, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott, have recently warned of lax security in relaying personal information such as Social Security numbers, birth dates and income statements, as people sign up under what many call "Obamacare."
Attorneys general in 13 states sent a letter to Sebelius last month questioning whether there will be enough protection of consumer data in the program, and Republicans from around the country have questioned the system's security and privacy safeguards.
Senior administration officials said the efforts were planned before the GOP attack on security in the state exchanges. The meeting was held at the White House as a sign of its importance to President Barack Obama.
The White House meeting, which will be followed by events later in the week at the Justice Department and at the Federal Trade Commission, is designed to reassure Americans that their personal information will be safe and to publicize ways to report criminal activity.
White House officials plan to unveil a toll-free telephone number (800-318-2596, TTY 855-889-4325) that will connect consumers to federal call centers for reporting fraud or attempted identity theft under the new health care law. They also plan to promote several other initiatives, including a new computer system that will verify Americans' identities to prevent taxpayer-funded subsidies from going to criminals and an education blitz to warn consumers what scams to be on the lookout for.
For example, they want seniors on Medicare to know the state exchanges don't apply to them and that anyone seeking their personal information for the exchange is likely a crook. For all consumers, don't give out medical information or pay up-front "enrollment" fees.
Consumer fraud experts from state and federal agencies will also meet regularly and notify local law enforcement about what to look for as new scams crop up.
On Oct. 1, millions of people without access to job-based health care will be able to enroll online through new state insurance markets for coverage effective at the start of next year.
Adding millions more people to the health care system is bound to create new opportunities for identity thieves and scam artists. In Chicago, one advocate said that legitimate door-to-door outreach to inform people about the Affordable Care Act may open up opportunities for swindlers.
"I don't know how we're going to distinguish between legitimate outreach and scams," said Erin Weir of AgeOptions, suburban Cook County's lead agency on aging. "I am being told that legitimate people will have IDs and badges. But a savvy scam artist could mimic something like that."
Federal health officials say they've worked with personal information in the Medicare and Medicaid programs for decades and note the new technology infrastructure was designed to meet federal and health care industry standards for data security.
Kennedy reported from Miami. Associated Press writer Carla K. Johnson in Chicago contributed to this report.
Online: Government tip sheet for avoiding health care fraud: http://marketplace.cms.gov/getofficialresources/publications-and-articles/protect-yourself-from-fraud-in-health-insurance-marketplace.pdf