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A Trading Probe With 400 Insiders

Washington — Hundreds of federal employees were given advance word of a Medicare decision worth billions of dollars to private insurers in the weeks before the official announcement, a period when trading in the shares of those firms spiked.

The surge of trading in Humana’s and other private health insurers’ stock before the April 1 announcement already has prompted the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate whether Wall Street investors had advance access to inside information about the then-confidential Medicare funding plan.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, told The Washington Post late last week that his office reviewed the e-mail records of employees at the Department of Health and Human Services and found that 436 of them had early access to the Medicare decision as much as two weeks before it was made public.

The number of federal employees with advance knowledge is surely higher; the figures Grassley’s staff compiled did not include people at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget who also saw the information. The e-mail records of those employees have not been made available to Grassley.

The discovery that sensitive information was so widely disseminated could complicate the forensic task for investigators trying to determine who may have leaked confidential information, and it brings further attention to the government’s handling of policy details valued by Wall Street traders.

“This should sound an alarm,” Grassley said. “It should result in better controls to avoid unfair access to information that the average investor could never tap.”

Tracing leaks of confidential financial information can be especially challenging in official Washington, where Congress and the executive branch — along with the reporters and lobbyists who track them — are accustomed to a relatively unfettered exchange of information, compared with the more regulated environment on Wall Street.

The potential sensitivity of such exchanges was brought home for Grassley last month, when the Justice Department hand-delivered to his office a letter asking for details about a staff member’s communications with a former staffer. That former Grassley staffer was a lobbyist who occasionally worked in the burgeoning field of “political intelligence,” which specializes in providing government information to investors for a fee.

Grassley has led calls in the Senate for more scrutiny of that field, and he has said he plans to introduce legislation that would require political-intelligence consultants to disclose their activities, as lobbyists are required to do.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) made the April 1 decision to increase funding to the private-sector Medicare Advantage program by $8 billion. Officials there did not dispute Grassley’s tally of how many employees had advance word but said the complexity of Medicare policy requires wide and careful review.

“CMS takes the security and integrity of sensitive information very seriously,” Brian Cook, a spokesman for the agency, said in a statement. “Our agency regularly handles sensitive information regarding payment rates, coverage decisions, and other technical policy decisions that need to be safeguarded until public release.”

The agency officials said they take care to safeguard information and carefully vet which employees have access to it. Employees are educated regularly about the need for confidentiality, and CMS documents are often stamped with warnings about early disclosure.

A former director of the Medicare program, Thomas Scully, said he was not surprised that hundreds of people had access to the decision, given the complexity of the matter. He favors more communication between the agency and Wall Street, but he said that more care needs to be taken about what is discussed.