By Mary Orndorff Troyan, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - New online marketplaces where people can start shopping for health insurance next month aren't secure and will be subject to fraud and abuse, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson told Congress Wednesday.
Wilson, who was part of the unsuccessful effort to have the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act declared unconstitutional, said his comments were intended to protect consumers.
"Ironically, the implementation of a federal program designed to provide health care to all Americans puts us all at severe risk because it is riddled with scams and security breaches," Wilson told members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Wilson said the new online health care exchanges will rely on a data hub that has not been fully tested for security. The hub will gather information from seven different federal agencies to determine which consumers are eligible for federal subsidies when they buy insurance through an exchange.
"It will be a con-man's all-you-can-eat buffet overflowing with a gold mine of sensitive information," Wilson said.
The new state-based exchanges will allow individuals who don't have insurance through the government or an employer to comparison-shop for a plan.
Wilson's appearance on Capitol Hill was part of a dispute between Republicans and Democrats over whether GOP state officials are trying to obstruct the law's implementation for political reasons. The original witness list was made up entirely of officials from states with Republican governors opposed to the federal health care law. Democrats threatened to boycott the hearing unless supporters of the law were added.
Democrats invited South Carolina state Sen. Bradley Hutto, who criticized Wilson and the law's other GOP opponents.
"It is appalling that some South Carolina officials continue to pursue efforts to block our citizens from receiving health care coverage," Hutto said.
He said the health care law will provide insurance to between 350,000 and 400,000 South Carolina residents, reducing their reliance on emergency rooms.
Congressional Republicans view the Affordable Care Act as an unworkable and job-killing attack on individual freedom. Democrats defend it as a long-overdue life-saving law that will increase the number of insured Americans.
Republican staffers on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee issued a preliminary report Wednesday saying people hired to help consumers navigate the new health care exchanges are insufficiently trained in protecting their data and aren't subject to criminal background checks.
"Congress has to ask, 'Are we ready to go live?'" committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said.
The top Democrat on the panel said House Republicans have voted 41 times to repeal the 2010 law without an alternative plan to help 40 million uninsured Americans afford coverage.
"This is the law. Hello? This is the law," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.
Members of Congress weren't the only ones bickering about the law Wednesday. Witnesses from South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana sat side-by-side with nearly opposite views on whether the law will help or hurt people in their states.
Top officials with President Barack Obama's administration met Wednesday at the White House about how the government intends to protect consumer privacy and prevent scams in the health exchanges.
"We have strong security safeguards... to protect people's personal information against fraud, and we will work with our partners to aggressively prosecute bad actors, just as we have been doing in Medicare, Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
The data hub Wilson referred to was certified as safe on Sept. 6 after independent security testing using standards set by the National Institute for Standards and Technology, according to a senior administration official.
Wilson said he accepted the June 2012 Supreme Court decision that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional, and he asked Congress to instead focus on making sure it prevents fraud and identity theft. He recommended the law be delayed until the security concerns are met.
"It's our duty as elected representatives to try to improve it," Wilson said.