By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bill targeting potential security problems with the Obamacare website passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives on Friday with the support of dozens of Democrats, despite opposition from the White House.
The House voted 291-122 to approve legislation by Republican Representative Joe Pitts that would require the government to notify Americans within two days if their personal information has been compromised on the federal website, HealthCare.gov, where consumers can shop and buy health insurance.
The bill has little chance of passage in the Democratic-run Senate. But it allowed Republicans to amplify their anti-Obamacare message while letting Democrats go on record as having cast a vote critical of the health care program, in case they think they need it during their campaigns.
Supporters said the proposal was justified because the administration did not properly test the website before launching it on October 1, and the site had suffered from many glitches afterwards.
"Since the disastrous rollout of the HealthCare.gov website, congressional oversight has uncovered that end-to-end security testing of HealthCare.gov did not occur before the October 1st launch, and that high-ranking administration officials were told of the security risks before the website went live," Pitts said.
The Obamacare website collects personal data such as names, birth dates, email addresses and other information that criminals could use for a variety of scams.
But opponents of the bill said there had been no security breaches of the website. They denounced the proposal as a scare tactic aimed at undermining President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law by discouraging people from signing up for insurance online.
The Republicans are "trying to address a reality that is not there," Representative Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat, said during debate.
Nonetheless, 67 Democrats voted for the measure, a sign of their nervousness over Republican efforts to make the healthcare law and its botched rollout a top issue in midterm elections later this year.
The previous high-water mark for legislation aimed at the Obamacare was 39 Democrats, who supported a bill by Republican Representative Fred Upton in November. It would allow insurance companies to renew and sell inexpensive, limited-coverage policies that have been canceled because they do not meet the standards of the new healthcare law.
So far the Senate has ignored the Upton bill, although some Senate Democrats are supporting a similar version.
The White House issued a statement on Thursday saying there were already extensive rules for safeguarding personal information on the healthcare exchanges.
But Upton, arguing that consumers be notified of personal data breaches within two days, recalled that hackers had attacked Target Corp and compromised up to 40 million credit cards and debit cards before Christmas.
"Would it have been right for Target to sit on that information?" Upton said.
Republicans zeroed in on recent testimony to a congressional committee by the chief information security officer at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), Teresa Fryer.
She told lawmakers that just 10 days before the October 1 launch, she was "unwilling to recommend this site go active," Representative Darrell Issa said during Friday's debate.
Democrats have pointed out that when Fryer testified in mid-December to the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, she also said there had been "no successful breaches" of the HealthCare.gov website. This point was underscored in a statement Friday from CMS, the agency that oversaw the Obamacare website rollout.
"To date, there have been no successful security attacks on HealthCare.gov and no person or group has maliciously accessed personally identifiable information from the site. Security testing is conducted on an ongoing basis using industry best practices to appropriately safeguard consumers' personal information," the CMS statement said.
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Karey Van Hall, Bernadette Baum, Andre Grenon and Ken Wills)