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Big Brother? Health Insurance Company Buying Consumer Spending Data

11:26 PM, Mar 4, 2013   |    comments
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Greensboro, NC -- Health insurance companies already know when you have a medical procedure or a doctor's appointment. And they ask about our smoking, but now some insurance companies are also checking your receipts and using your buying habits to keep you in line.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina buys consumer spending data in North Carolina from third parties.

"Just like any other business gets consumer data, whether it be a bank, whether it be Amazon.com, whether it be Google or something like that, there's a lot of information about consumer behavior that's available," said Lew Borman, spokesman for Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina.

According to Borman, the data is collected anytime a consumer swipes their credit card or buys something online.

According to the insurance company, they're using the information to help employers craft wellness programs for their employees.

"We don't use the information for rating. We don't use it for insuring. It's additional programmatic information that would lead to healthier lifestyles," said Borman.

If your habits include buying doughnuts on the way to work, or a burger and fries for lunch, your insurance company is going to know about it.

"You can always tell specifically who actually purchased a product. That's what different credit card companies do," said Borman.

Borman told WFMY News 2's Lauren Melvin the goal is to find to way to influence those habits by offering healthier lifestyle options.

In turn, the information could help employers save money on health care costs.

So, is tracking this information legal?

According to Attorney Ken Keller, yes.

"Sure it's invasive and sure it's big brother. But the issue is, is it illegal? And most of the laws are structured with restrictions on what employers do. And therefore, it would be very important for the insurance companies to maintain a buffer and not communicate any of the information that they acquire that way, to the employer," said Keller.

According to Keller, there is no blanket privacy protection in terms of what we buy in public.

However, there are laws that make it illegal to take certain adverse personnel actions, such as not hiring or disciplining or firing people because of protected statuses.

"The concern from an employer standpoint would be, 'I don't want to know necessarily somebody is eating a bunch of doughnuts, which maybe indicates they may be pre-diabetic,' because diabetes can be considered a disability," said Keller. And then, if I take some adverse personnel action against them, for a totally unrelated reason, that may give them the opportunity to say, 'well that wasn't really the reason. The reason was that you thought I had this disability and that I was going to be a problem for you in the future'."

Unless you never swipe a credit card, you never shop online, you don't have any grocery store cards and you use cash for everything, you can't really opt out of the consumer spending tracking.

However, there is an organization called "Patient Privacy Rights" that has launched a "Do Not Disclose" campaign. According to the organization's website, it would work like the "Do Not Call" list, but instead of stopping marketing companies from calling you, it would stop companies and government from using your health data without your permission.

WFMY News 2

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