White House ramps up protections ahead of ObamaCare launch

The Obama administration is taking new steps to make sure that Americans are not scammed and won't have their identities stolen under ObamaCare.

State and federal officials met at the White House on Wednesday to kick off an effort to crack down on fraud in new healthcare marketplaces, scheduled to get off the ground in less than two weeks.

“Today, we are sending a clear message that we will not tolerate anyone seeking to defraud consumers in the Health Insurance Marketplace,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement after the meeting.

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Sebelius, Attorney General Eric Holder, Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough met with Maryland’s attorney general and Kansas’s insurance commissioner to make sure that consumers were aware of their protections under the healthcare law and able to report bad actors.

The administration also announced that it would let people report incidents of fraud through a toll-free phone number and the website healthcare.gov, route those complaints thought a central database and set up a mechanism to immediately respond to breaches of the data hub set up by the Affordable Care Act. The hub will let various state and federal agencies communicate with each other and get access to records necessary to process applications for insurance under the law’s state-based marketplaces.

“With these initiatives, we think we’re making significant contributions toward preventing, protecting and, where appropriate and if necessary, prosecuting and punishing activities that we will not in any way accept,” a senior administration official told reporters Wednesday.

The effort comes amid concerns from Republicans in Congress that “navigators” and “assisters” tasked with helping consumers shop for insurance on the new marketplaces will not be held to strong-enough standards to protect consumers.

To help insurance shoppers, those workers will look at information including consumers’ Social Security numbers, birthdates and income, but will not be required to undergo background checks or be fingerprinted. Some critics of the healthcare reform law have worried that that could expose people to new threats.

On Wednesday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released a report asserting that “substantial risks remain” for consumer privacy on the new marketplaces.

“The failure of the Administration to provide clarity about prohibited marketing and solicitation techniques and to provide consumers with a list of authenticated Navigators and Assisters substantially increases the number of Americans likely to fall prey to fraud and identity theft,” the report concluded.

Democrats have derided those types of concerns as a partisan “witch hunt” targeting organizations just trying to protect the health of people in their community. They say that the navigators will not have access to confidential medical information or anything else not already used for federal programs like Medicare.

“We should not be interfering and diverting resources from these community and civic groups that are working so hard to implement the Affordable Care Act,” Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.) the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement.

Democrats on that panel released their own findings of an investigation on the navigators Wednesday, which determined that the navigators have “effective privacy protections in place.”

Administration officials denied that the White House's new efforts were a direct response to Republican criticisms. Instead, they said that the focus was a natural strategy to assure consumers ahead of the exchanges' start date of Oct. 1.

“We wanted to send signals before people start enrolling,” a senior administration official explained.