GOP says O-Care contractor may have conflict of interest

Republican lawmakers are raising new concerns that a contractor for HealthCare.gov may have a conflict of interest because its parent company owns a major health insurance carrier.

The issue gained additional relevance on Friday after the administration announced that an executive with the contractor, Optum/QSSI, would join the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in a leadership role.

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Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) had described their unease with the company's involvement in HealthCare.gov in a letter sent less than 24 hours prior to the announcement.

At issue is Optum/QSSI's affiliation with UnitedHealth Group, a conglomerate that also owns insurer UnitedHealthcare.

"Optum/QSSI will have access to a significant amount of data regarding highly sensitive aspects of [federal marketplace] operations," the lawmakers wrote to the CMS.

"UnitedHealthcare, one of the nation's largest providers of health plans, is participating as an insurer in ten state exchanges, and may expand into the federal marketplace in 2015.

"Given the role of its fellow UnitedHealth Group subsidiary, we have serious questions about any conflicts of interest that may exist between the two entities."

Lawmakers have raised concerns about the tangle of connections in the past, but Hatch and Grassley complained Thursday that the administration has not fully responded to their inquiries.

A CMS official said the agency has done everything necessary to ensure no improper conflicts related to Optum's role in HealthCare.gov.

"We have ensured that Optum/QSSI has taken steps to meet standards required by Federal Acquisition Regulations to prevent organizational conflicts of interest," spokesman Aaron Albright said in a statement.

Nonetheless, Hatch and Grassley sent letters to both the CMS and UnitedHealth Group asking for further detail on how they plan to prevent any impropriety.

The company was recently awarded another contract, making it a "senior adviser" to the site. As for its vice president, Andy Slavitt will now join the CMS as a principal deputy administrator.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell announced the hire Friday as part of her overhaul of ObamaCare's management team before the second enrollment period begins this fall.