Privacy breach at N.Y. health exchange – Email addresses of some applicants were revealed

Jon Campbell

Albany Bureau

ALBANY — Some appli­cants to the New York health insurance ex­change saw their email a ddresses revealed this week in a message re­minding them of a March 31 enrollment deadline.

The automated email sent by the exchange on Monday went to New York residents who com­pleted an online applica­tion process but hadn’t yet enrolled in insurance cov­erage. The message didn’t make use of the blind car­bon copy feature, allow­ing recipients of the email to see the addresses of others who received it.

It wasn’t clear Wednes­day how widespread the apparent privacy breach w as. There are 328,641 state residents who submitted an application and didn’t yet enroll, the Depart­ment of Health an­nounced Tuesday. But the email was sent to just 100 recipients at a time, ac­cording to several copies of the message obtained Wednesday by Gannett’s Albany Bureau. In a statement, the state Department of Health said the email re­minder went to a “small group of individuals,” but didn’t say how many. “Other than the email addresses, no identifying information was included in the email,” the depart­ment’s statement reads. “We have investigated the c ause of this error and have taken steps to pre­vent it from occurring again.” The email was to re­mind applicants to the ex­change that they would have to elect an insurance plan and provider by March 31 in order to re­ceive coverage in 2014. For those who enroll ahead of the deadline, their coverage would be­gin May 1.

The state’s health ex­change — which is essen­tially an insurance mar­ketplace — launched in October as part of the fed­eral Affordable Care Act.

There were numerous complaints about the ap­parent breach on Twitter and other social media. S ome users posted copies of the email online, re­dacting the names of the recipients. Several sent tweets di­rectly to the health ex­change’s official Twitter account — @NYStateof Health. “Really @NYStateof-Health?” wrote Robbie Rozelle, a Johnson City, Broome County, native now living in New York City. “You send out a mass email without blind-copy­ing?”

Lavonne Hall, a 44­year-old photographer from New York City who received the reminder, said she called the ex­change’s help line to raise concerns about the email. When she became discon­n ected, she took to Twitter to air her complaint. “There was one (email) that went out last week, and you couldn’t see other email addresses,” Hall said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Then this one came in and I saw this long list of names, and I thought, what the heck is this?” As of Tuesday, 995,038 people had completed the exchange’s application process, the first step in enrolling in coverage through the marketplace. Of those, 666,397 complet­ed the enrollment proc­ess, with 327,020 enrolling in private plans and 339,377 placed on Medi­caid.

The exchange’s priva­c y policy tells users their “health information is pri­vate.”

“The marketplace is required to keep your in­formation private, share your information only when we need to and fol­low the privacy practices in this notice,” the policy reads.


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