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National Review Online


Turning Uncle Sam into Peeping Tom

August 20, 2009

By Diana Furchtgott-Roth

Another target of Obamacare: Americans’ right to financial privacy.

Buried in the 1,017 pages of the House Democrats’ health-care bill is a little-noticed provision that for the first time could give the government access to the checking or credit-card information of every American. Under section 163, which is entitled “Administrative Simplification,” the bill sets new “standards” for electronic transactions between individuals and their health-care providers.

According to section 163, the standards will “enable the real-time (or near real-time) determination of an individual’s financial responsibility at the point of service . . . ” In addition, they will “enable electronic funds transfers, in order to allow automated reconciliation with related health care payment and remittance advice.”

What is envisioned is a “machine-readable health plan beneficiary card” that, in addition to information about a person’s medical history, will contain checking-account or credit-card information, so as to allow electronic payments and, if a person is lucky, occasional remittances. Since under the proposed legislation everyone would be required to have health insurance, all Americans would have to provide this information.

The required collection of such data is unprecedented. At no other time has the government sought to collect this type of financial information from everyone in America.

True, the federal government has records of the checking accounts of its employees for direct deposit of salaries. But that is linked solely to employment. And yes, the Internal Revenue Service has checking-account information for those Americans who are due tax refunds and who have requested direct deposit of the refunds into their bank accounts. This, however, is strictly voluntary. Those who want to receive paper checks in the mail and take them to their banks are free to do so.

The idea of wholesale collection of checking-account information by Uncle Sam raises many questions. Who would see it? How would people be protected from theft of their account numbers? Fundamentally, who would control this sensitive information?

The answer to that last question is that it would not be the person who should control it: the individual to whom it belongs. Although section 163 has a clause that reads “Nothing in this section shall be construed to permit the use of information collected under this section in a manner that would adversely affect any individual,” there are news stories all too frequently of government data being lost or misused.

Just this week Kevin Young, a State Department career employee, pleaded guilty to illegally accessing more than 125 passport applications for celebrities, professional athletes, and a politician. He was the fifth employee to plead guilty. And last January the Department of Veterans Affairs paid current and retired military personnel $20 million because a laptop with their personal data was temporarily lost in 2006.

There is no reason why the government, a health-care provider, or an insurance company needs immediate electronic payment for any medical service. Such services are no different from many others. Charges for goods and services can be paid at the time of service with cash, a check, or a credit card — think grocery stores, barbershops, department stores. Or the provider of the service may send a bill — think utility companies and mortgage holders. When people pay bills through direct withdrawal from a bank account, they have chosen to do it this way, with other options available.

Many people who reveal intimate details of their social lives are scrupulous in guarding information about their earnings and bank accounts. These matters are considered more personal than whom you went to dinner with last night and what you did afterwards.

With section 163 of the House health-care bill, information we keep from our closest friends would be open to government snoopers. We would not know which bureaucrats were looking into our checking or credit-card accounts, or what they intended to do with that information.

In America financial data are still private, and they should stay that way.

Original Source:



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