A private consulting firm has been given the medical records and names and addresses of all 2 million residents of New England who are getting Medi-care benefits.
The federal records were given to Jen Associates of Cambridge for a study it's performing of the proposed merger of Medicare and Medicaid for the 110,000 Massachusetts residents eligible for both (March 24, p. 12).
The study is being done for the Massachusetts Division of Medical Assistance, which asked the U.S. Office of Health Care Information Systems to provide the Medicare records.
"This is absolutely horrifying. This is going to scare senior citizens," John Gatti, legislative chairman of the Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists, told the Boston Herald.
But Sharon Gillis of the Division of Medical Assistance, which runs the Medicaid program in the state, said there is "a strict confidentiality clause" in the $66,000 contract with Jen Associates.
She said the four-person consulting firm can use the records only to tabulate costs and help develop a plan to merge Medicare and Medicaid for those eligible for both programs, and will not be allowed to sell or give the records to anyone else.
She said the consulting company got individual records, but the state will see only the aggregate data.
Dan Valentine of Jen Associates said the names are used to identify people eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid, and once they are found the names will not be needed or used.
Federal approval would be needed to combine the programs into one, to be called Senior Care.
Gillis said records of all Medicare recipients in New England were requested because other states want to create similar programs. Massachusetts and five other New England states filed a "framework" with HCFA in March detailing the fundamental features all states will use in combining the programs.
Beverly Woodward, a privacy advocate and sociology researcher at Brandeis University, questioned whether Jen Associates has enough security to protect the records, and she was concerned that the information could be used by HMOs to keep sicker patients from enrolling in their plans.
Valentine said the company passed federal and state security inspections.
He said the Medicare information is housed in a secure storage facility or stored in a secure room to which only two employees have access.
The Herald also reported in March that health insurance records of 250,000 current and retired state workers and their families were given by the state's Group Insurance Commission to a consulting company, university researchers and a drug company.
That was in connection with insurance contracts negotiated by the state. The names of the people were not included, but some legislators said individuals could be identified through other information.