White House shines spotlight on health care tech companies

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and it goes hand-in-hand with one of the most tedious deadlines of all — at least until April 15 (aka tax day) rolls around. December 15 marks the deadline to sign up for health coverage in order to be covered in 2016. And, seemingly recognizing that making sense of the complex health coverage landscape is about the least festive thing there is, the White House spoke up today with a dispatch about health care technology.

White House digital strategy director Joshua Miller took to the blog to discuss the record low of uninsured Americans, as well as highlighting few of the companies that are leveraging technology to help the uninsured get coverage. Some of those companies include ZocDoc, an online appointment-booking service that will be reminding its users to enroll for coverage and Oscar, a health insurance startup that made a PSA aimed at demystifying coverage.

“We know that many uninsured Americans question whether they can afford coverage, and may not realize that more than 7 in 10 HealthCare.gov customers can find insurance for $75 a month or less after tax credits,” said Miller in the White House blog post. “So for uninsured Americans who remain skeptical about the costs of getting insured, health insurance company Oscar Health has created a digital video public service announcement (PSA) that explains why health insurance is actually more affordable than people may think. Oscar will distribute this video in key markets online, too, including in California, New York, and Texas.”

On the receiving end of a hefty $32.5 million investment from Google back in September, Oscar is a health coverage startup that helps people choose coverage options with straightforward, plain-language plan comparisons. Leaning heavily on technology and simple design, Oscar helps customers keep track of care and connects them to providers in an attempt to improve upon the outdated systems that create separation between customers and coverage. 

“At Oscar, we are constantly pushing ourselves to find new and creative ways to engage consumers through the use of technology and provide members, as well as the uninsured in our communities, with the knowledge they need to get care, says Oscar CEO Mario Schlosser. “We are incredibly motivated by the support the White House has shown us today on this initiative and are proud to share this video we created on just how simple it is to sign up for an affordable plan through the ACA.”

The deadline, it creeps. But understanding the way coverage works in the age of the ACA is a big part of solving the uninsured problem, and the administration’s recognition of the vital role of technology in tackling some of our country’s biggest issues remains a pivotal thread in the tapestry of what Miller calls “today’s collective challenges.”

Firms may face new $16,500 privacy fines under White House bill

Many consumers have grown resigned to the parade of privacy breaches that occur when apps or big tech companies like Facebook or Google misuse their personal data. These incidents typically result in a slap on the wrist for the offending company, but that could change under a new privacy law the White House is expected to propose next month.

According to Politico, which offers details from three Administration sources, the proposed law would work by strengthening data protection rules and by greatly increasing the power of the Federal Trade Commission to impose fines.

This last point is significant since the FTC, which is the country’s de facto privacy cop, is often incapable of meting out real punishments, even in the event of most egregious privacy breaches. A recent example is a company that used a free flashlight app to steal personal data from 50 million Android users but avoided even a fine. As a result, newer companies like Snapchat may be tempted to play fast and loose with privacy, knowing there will be few consequences.

While the FTC has been able to punish repeat offenders, including Facebook and Google, through the use of 20-year consent decrees, the companies sometimes appear to treat such measures as just a cost of doing business. But under the new bill, the FTC would pack more of a punch, including a new power to fine $16,500/day:

The agency, under the administration’s proposal, would gain the power to issue civil penalties against companies, sources said. Currently, the FTC can only levy fines when companies break existing privacy or security settlements with the agency. But the bill would empower the FTC to slap businesses with penalties of $16,500 per violation per day for breaking the law, one source indicated. Other portions of the bill would firm up the FTC’s legal authority over nonprofits and telecom companies.

If passed, the law would also reportedly increase the FTC’s oversight over data brokers and in emerging areas of tech like facial recognition software. It may also give consumers new power to learn what information internet companies possess about their personal lives, though it would not go as far as Europe’s controversial “right to be forgotten” law.

While the additional powers FTC may be welcomed by many consumers, the proposed law could prove contentious in Congress, and with the increasingly powerful tech lobby. Opponents are likely to claim that the stricter controls on data and privacy could inhibit innovation, and risk imposing emerging industries in red tape.

To learn more, and to hear directly from the FTC, come join Gigaom at Structure Data in New York City on March 18, where I’ll be speaking with FTC Commissioner Julie Brill.

Drone on White House lawn leads to lockdown

A small drone landed on White House grounds late Sunday night, leading to emergency vehicles swarming the area, and the perimeter being placed on lockdown until 5:00 a.m., according to the AP. A White House spokesperson told the New York Times he did not have details about the size or make of the drone, but that the Secret Service is investigating.

The White House episode is the latest mishap involving drones, which are becoming ever more popular with average consumers. Other such mishaps include an arrest at the U.S. Open, and a ban on the devices at National Parks where tourists have harassed wildlife and crashed a device into a famous hot spring.

While Sunday’s incident posed no danger to the president, who is in India, it will provide more grist for the debate over how to regulate the ongoing proliferation of small camera-equipped unmanned aircraft.

As it stands, the FAA has been coming down hard on anyone who uses a drone for commercial purposes, such as real estate photography, but has largely left it up to local authorities to police amateur drone enthusiasts.

The result, according to Wall Street Journal columnist Gordon Crovitz, is that “We now have the worst of both worlds: Hobbyists are not effectively regulated, creating potential safety issues, while commercial development is criminalized.”

While the federal agency was supposed to have new rules for drones in place by last year, it has repeatedly missed deadlines, and now reports suggest the rules may not be ready until 2017.

As I’ve argued in the past, the U.S. should take a page from countries like France and Canada, which have developed permitting systems to encourage commercial uses, and which are considering certification processes to ensure hobbyists use the devices safely.