Calif. Obamacare Shares Data Without Consent

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The California health exchange says it's been giving the names of tens of thousands of consumers to insurance agents without their permission or knowledge in an effort to hit deadlines for coverage.

The consumers in question had gone online to research insurance options but didn't ask to be contacted, the Los Angeles Times reported Saturday (http://lat.ms/1jyABXS ).

Officials with Covered California, the exchange set up in response to the federal health law, said they began providing names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses if available this week in a pilot program. They said they thought it would help people meet a Dec. 23 deadline to have health insurance in place by Jan. 1.

The state doesn't know exactly how many people are affected by the information sharing. Social Security numbers, income and other information were not provided to the agents, exchange officials said.

The pilot program meets privacy laws and was cleared by the exchange's legal counsel, Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, told the Times.

But some insurance brokers and consumers weren't pleased with the state's initiative.

"I'm shocked and dumbfounded," said Sam Smith, an Encino insurance broker and president of the California Association of Health Underwriters, an industry group.

"These people would have a legitimate complaint," said Smith, who added he had been given two consumer names.

The names provided include people who started an insurance application on the Covered California website but didn't complete the process.

A local agent emailed Robert Blatt on Thursday asking him about the application he'd started.

"You can't do this," Blatt, a technology consultant in Ventura County, told the newspaper. "For a government agency to release this information to an outside person is a major issue."

Covered California has signed up nearly 80,000 people in private health plans and an additional 140,000 people qualified for Medi-Cal, the state's Medicaid program.

But the exchange has been struggling recently with a surge of applicants, and consumers are getting frustrated with long wait times. The state wanted to provide additional help by connecting consumers with a network of 7,700 insurance agents who are trained and certified in the enrollment process, said Lee, the exchange chief.

"I can imagine some people may be upset," he said. "But I can see a lot of people will be comforted and relieved at getting the help they need to navigate a confusing process."

A call to Covered California's media line by The Associated Press was not immediately returned Saturday.

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