(Bloomberg) -- Republican lawmakers criticized potential security flaws in the U.S. health exchanges as Obama administration officials said they have made protecting customer privacy a top priority in their efforts to fix the website.

Identity theft, misrouted data and unencrypted information were among the concerns about the health-insurance marketplace leading up to its Oct. 1 debut. At a House hearing, Republicans sparred with Democrats over whether today’s questioning of the main technology officials for the exchanges was designed to solve problems or embarrass the Obama administration.

Henry Chao, the deputy chief information officer for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told the committee there were “unanticipated technical problems.” Still, he recommended to his boss that she should let the exchange open without a full security test, a Sept. 27 memo shows. The decision to do so by CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner, combined with other flaws in the website, was fateful.

“This wasn’t a small mistake, this wasn’t a scaling mistake, this was a monumental mistake to go live and effectively explode on the launchpad,” said Darrell Issa, the California Republican who is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “Efforts were taken to cut corners to meet political deadlines at the end.”

Testing Waiver

Tavenner’s decision to temporarily waive completion of the full security tests allowed the Obama administration to open the website to the public as promised on Oct. 1, a core part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. Despite errors, outages and flaws that continue to prevent some people from using the exchange, Tavenner told senators at a Nov. 5 hearing that the website is secure and “testing never ends.”

U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park unexpectedly appeared at the hearing today and said progress is being made on fixing the Obamacare health-insurance exchanges.

“Since the beginning of October, I have shifted into working full-time on the team that is working around the clock to fix healthcare.gov and bring it to the place it should be,” Park said in prepared testimony.

The White House had said Park wouldn’t attend the hearing today because it would take him away from his work of repairing the health exchange website.

Security Standards

While Democrats said contractors failed to fully deliver on the website, they criticized Issa’s hearing, saying his effort at oversight is a veiled tactic to scare Americans from using the health exchanges.

“For the past three years, the No. 1 priority for congressional Republicans has been to bring down this law,” said Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the committee.

The parts of the federal website, healthcare.gov, that are operational comply with information-security laws and parameters from the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, said Patti Unruh, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“When consumers fill out their online marketplace applications, they can trust that the information that they are providing is protected by stringent security standards,” she said in an e-mail. “Security testing happens on an ongoing basis using industry best practices to appropriately safeguard consumers’ personal information.”

Identity Thieves

Insurance markets for 36 states where people can shop for private health plans with the help of government subsidies, are being run by the federal government, while 14 states have created their own sites. The government’s computer networks collect personal information such as family size and Social Security numbers, as well as financial records and other data from seven federal agencies to determine what health plans people can buy and whether they’ll receive tax credits.

For identity thieves, “this is the opportunity you’ve been waiting a lifetime for: a brand-new reason for people to put in personal information who otherwise wouldn’t have done it before,” Stephen Parente, a University of Minnesota health economist who consulted on Republican Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign, said in a phone interview prior to the hearing.

Kathleen Sebelius, the U.S. health secretary, told senators last week in a hearing that little of the information is stored by the government’s website, and insurers receive only enough to know who their customers are and how much they owe.

275,000 E-Mails

Tavenner’s agency has been making hundreds of fixes to healthcare.gov and conducting weekly and monthly security tests.

Initial reports show that fewer than 100,000 people have signed up for health plans using the exchanges, largely because of the software errors. The Obama administration has since shaken up management of the U.S. website and promised to get the exchange fully functioning by the end of this month.

About 275,000 people who tried and failed to sign up for health plans when the website debuted are being asked by the U.S. government to return and try again as the flaws are corrected.

People are being contacted this week in a “series of e- mails in waves” to avoid too many getting on the website at the same time, Julie Bataille, a CMS spokeswoman told reporters yesterday on a conference call. Additional people who weren’t able to complete applications will be solicited later. The Obama administration plans this week to release a comprehensive report on first-month enrollment.

Four Teams

The repair effort for the website is divided into four teams of workers including one focused on security issues and “continuing to ensure rigorous protection of the system and its data,” Jeffrey Zients said on a Nov. 1 conference call, President Barack Obama asked Zients, a management consultant slated to become his director of the National Economic Council beginning in January, to help fix the website.

A transcript of a Nov. 1 meeting between Issa’s Oversight and Government Reform Committee and Chao, the information officer, reveals the website’s builders were primarily concerned about “unauthorized access” to customer data because security testing hadn’t been fully conducted. Chao said the government was willing to accept a “level of an increased risk” in order to make sure the site was running by Oct. 1.

Chao and another CMS official, James Kerr, the acting deputy director of operations at the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, recommended Tavenner sign off on opening the website even though a major security test required for all federal computer systems “was only partly completed,” according to the Sept. 27 memo. A full testing would be completed by January, according to the memo.

Green Light

“They had risks they knew they couldn’t manage, and they chose to go down the path of accepting those risks,” said Mark Forman, a consultant who was the U.S. chief information officer under former President George W. Bush. “That’s a no-no.”

Tavenner’s signing of the “Authority to Operate” memo effectively became the green light for the website to go live as-is on Oct. 1. Sebelius told senators last week that she “did not know that the memo existed in September.” And a spokesman for the president’s Office of Management and Budget, Steven Posner, said agencies aren’t required to seek the White House’s approval for such information-technology matters.

Agencies are responsible for implementing their security programs by assessing risk and then putting in place measures to mitigate that risk, based on their unique circumstances, he said in an e-mail.

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Health Data Management content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access