Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., called on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), and five major healthcare companies to “provide more information on how they are addressing bias in algorithms used in many healthcare systems.”

The Senators, who introduced the Algorithmic Accountability Act earlier this year, sent a series of letters on Dec. 3 to CMS Administrator Seema Verma, FTC Chairman Joseph Simons, and executives of UnitedHealth Group, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cigna Corporation, Humana, and Aetna.

The letters were spurred by a recent article in the journal Science which found that a widely-used software program is “severely” underestimating the healthcare needs of black patients due to its racially-biased algorithm.

“In using algorithms, organizations often attempt to remove human flaws and biases from the process,” the lawmakers wrote. “Unfortunately, both the people who design these complex systems, and the massive sets of data that are used, have many historical and human biases built-in. Without very careful consideration, the algorithms they subsequently create can further perpetuate those very biases.”

In their letters to the FTC and CMS, Booker and Wyden quested the agency leaders about what steps their agencies are taking to address algorithmic bias in the healthcare sector and whether their current enforcement mechanisms were able to address algorithmic biases. They further urged the FTC to “commit to investigate the ways that algorithms unfairly discriminate against marginalized communities.”

The Senators asked private sector leaders for “specific details about the algorithms their companies use to improve patient care and what safeguards the companies have put in place to prevent bias.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.