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New GAO Report Confirms States Can Share Data While Protecting Privacy

February 21, 2013

Washington, DC – Today, Congressman Dave Reichert (R-WA), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the Committee on Ways and Means, and Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, along with Congressmen Erik Paulsen (R-MN) and Tom Reed (R-NY), released a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report underscoring the opportunity for States to further enhance data sharing practices.  The report, titled “Human Services: Sustained and Coordinated Efforts Could Facilitate Data Sharing While Protecting Privacy,” reviews the extent to which States are exchanging data to improve administrative efficiency and client services of various human services programs, while protecting the privacy of beneficiaries’ personally identifiable information.  

Responding to the findings outlined in the report, the Congressmen and Senator made the following comments.  

Chairman Reichert said, “Some have claimed that ‘privacy protections’ prevent States from conducting effective data exchanges needed to bring government programs into the 21st century.  This report refutes such claims, highlighting the good work states and localities are already doing to improve the administration of human services programs by effectively sharing data while applying necessary and important privacy protections. There has long been bipartisan support for building on these successes. I look forward to advancing bipartisan efforts to improve the operation of human services programs through data exchange standardization, including by working with the Executive Branch to ensure all states and localities have the guidance they need to properly protect beneficiary data while effectively sharing data.”
“Given the serious financial challenges facing both the federal government and many state governments, it is critical that we continue to look for ways to provide the services our constituents depend on in the most cost-effective manner possible,” said Chairman Carper.  “This report offers some encouraging news on that front, but also underscores the need for better collaboration between state agencies as well as the federal government to share key information. The federal government needs to lead this effort by clarifying for states the rules regarding the sharing and coordination of information.  The GAO has laid out common sense steps that will allow state governments to utilize new technology, prevent fraud, run more effective programs, and reduce the burden and frustration of beneficiaries.  It will also save a lot of money.  That’s what I like to call a win-win.”

Congressman Paulsen added, “This report confirms that the work we have done on data standardization has been worthwhile and successful.  I am hopeful as we move forward we can continue to increase efficiency in these programs.”

“This report points out the positive efforts being made on the part of states and localities to increase efficiency and effectiveness of our federal human services programs,” said Congressman Reed. “By using a common language and consistent data standards, we can increase the integrity of these programs and more easily identify any waste in the system while protecting individuals’ privacy. Sharing data efficiently means we can help ensure those eligible for benefit programs are able to access them in a timely manner and make certain the necessary privacy protections are in place.”

According to the GAO report, a survey of stakeholders revealed that perceived barriers to data sharing stemming from privacy protections were not statutory in nature. Instead, GAO found “confusion and misconceptions around what data agencies are allowed to share, as well as a tendency to be risk averse and overly cautious in the interpretation of federal privacy requirements.” In the four states and localities that were profiled in the report, officials cited “strong leadership” as the most common factor leading to their success in implementing systematic and automated data sharing while also protecting personal privacy. Recommendations from stakeholders and GAO include clarification of federal privacy requirements, model legislation, and legal data exchange agreements that comply with federal law to reduce the duplication caused by each state having to draft their own agreements.

Background: Increasing the exchange of information among means-tested and other human services programs has been an ongoing priority of the Human Resources Subcommittee in its efforts to improve administrative efficiency and overall program integrity while protecting taxpayer dollars. During the 112th Congress, the Human Resources Subcommittee held several hearings on the issue.  Under the leadership of former Chairman Rep. Geoff Davis (R-KY) and Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY), subcommittee Members introduced bipartisan legislation to promote data exchange among all human services programs within the subcommittee’s jurisdiction. Similar language was included in the bipartisan Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act, which for the first time codified data standards language for child welfare programs. Similar bipartisan language was also included in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, which applied the same provisions to the Unemployment Insurance (UI) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs.

The Subcommittee on Human Resources of the House Committee on Ways and Means has jurisdiction over a range of human services programs including TANF, child welfare, Child Support Enforcement, Supplemental Security Income, and UI.