Policy: Technology

Top healthcare.gov contractor may add to users' security, privacy worries

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Watchdog,Richard Pollock,Immigration,Health and Human Services,India,Healthcare.gov,Privacy,Technology

Users of the healthcare.gov website may face increased security and privacy risks, thanks to the lead contractor's extensive reliance on foreign nationals working in the U.S. on specialty visas whose backgrounds are difficult to verify.

Columbia, Md.-based QSSI — the lead systems integrator on the troubled website’s design project — has applied for hundreds of H-1B visas from the U.S. Department of Labor in recent years, according to federal records.

Many of QSSI’s employees working on the website can access personal records of millions of health care applicants, including their Social Security numbers, tax records, immigration forms and private credit reports.

A limited number of H-1B visas are issued annually by the federal government and they are only to be used to fill technical positions when no qualified U.S. citizen is available. There are also limits on how many H-1B visa holders can work for federal contractors.

Verifying backgrounds of H-1B workers is especially difficult because much of the research must be done overseas, according to law enforcement experts.

Texas-based federal prosecutor Shamoil Shipchandler, who recently won a record $34 million settlement stemming from immigration violations by the Indian IT services company Infosys, said background checks on H-1B employees are difficult.

“I would be surprised, if, when you have foreign nationals, in order to substantiate and make sure that they’re not going to be a security threat, that’s not a little more difficult because you have to conduct the background check in the host country, which is a little more tricky to do," said the assistant U.S. attorney, who is based in Plano.

The presence of a significant number of H-1B workers at QSSI may also contradict recent congressional testimony by a company executive, who said the firm has no employees from outside the U.S. working on healthcare.gov.

These are not new issues for QSSI, which saw a federal contract cancelled in 2008 after federal officials charged that the IT firm’s workforce failed to satisfy U.S. legal requirements for a minimum acceptable proportion of U.S. citizens.

In a November 2008 decision, the Government Accountability Office upheld the Department of Housing and Urban Development cancellation, declaring, “the [contract] selection was improper because QSSI proposed key personnel who failed to meet the citizenship requirements.”

At the time, the HUD project involved designing a small inventory management system for Native American public housing, a project that is dwarfed by the scope of QSSI’s work on healthcare.gov.

Federal records show that since the 2008 cancellation, QSSI has accelerated its recruitment of foreign nationals in the form of H-1B visa holders.

The visa is applicable for foreign workers who have at least a bachelor’s degree. It is good for three years and can be renewed for an additional three years.

Congress has already questioned the controversial practice of using foreign employees for Obamacare, known as the Affordable Care Act.

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked in an Oct. 22 letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius about hiring foreigners “to the detriment of qualified American workers.” The Judiciary Committee oversees immigration issues.

Grassley asked Sebelius to describe “what language, if any, is included in contracts to implement PPACA (the Affordable Care Act) that relates to the hiring of foreign workers, whether here as nonimmigrants, legal permanent residents, or other immigration classification?”

Sebelius has not responded to Grassley on the issue.

A top executive of QSSI’s corporate parent told the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Oct. 24 that the firm uses no “outsourced” employees on healthcare.gov.

Asked by Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., whether the firm "or any of" its subcontractors "use any people or work outside of the United States to assist” on the health care project, Andy Slavitt, group executive vice president for Optum, which owns QSSI, replied “no.”

Donna Conroy, head of the Chicago-based group Bright Future Jobs, which represents U.S. tech workers, said Slavitt’s response was incomplete.

“What he is saying is, ‘we don’t outsource,’ but he is not stating ‘we don’t recruit in India,'” she said.

In fact, QSSI’s search for H-1B foreign workers continued even as Slavitt was testifying.

On Oct. 17, QSSI posted a want ad on Naukri.com, a leading Indian online jobs site. The word Naukri in Hindi means "jobs."

In the ad, the Maryland-based company with offices in Hyderabad, India, posted five job openings for its Enterprise Identity Management System. The jobs were located in QSSI’s Maryland facility.

QSSI stated, “We are actively looking to fill this position at the earliest.” The salary range was given in the Indian currency of rupees.

Labor Department data shows that in 2007 to 2008 when HUD deemed the workforce improper, QSSI had filed only six H-1B applications for visa workers with the Labor Department.

From Nov. 3, 2011, to Sept. 21, 2012, however, as QSSI ramped up its healthcare.gov contract, it had 62 H-1B visa requests before the Labor Department.

Both the Labor Department’s “Foreign Labor Certification Data Center” and the foreign job website, "MyVisaJobs.com," show that between 2001 and 2012, QSSI had filed more than 340 H-1B visa applications.

Optum spokesman Brian Kane refused to say either how many H-1B visa holders currently work for QSSI or the size of its overall workforce.

The company’s LinkedIn site says there are approximately 500 total employees.

CMS spokesmen were unable to tell the Examiner if federal procurement regulations bar or permit individuals in this country on H1-B visas to work on government contracts.

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