While the appropriations bill left out language to allow the development of a national patient identifier, Congress directs ONC to report on and support patient identification efforts.
An explanatory statement included with the Congressional Appropriations Agreement directs the Office of the National Coordinator to work with private sector initiatives focused on the development of a national strategy to improve patient identification across the healthcare sector.
The appropriations bill left out language that would allow the Department of Health and Human Services to use public funds for the development of a national patient identifier. For the last 20 years, the ban has been included in every appropriations bill, despite language in HIPAA that directs HHS to develop a unique patient identifier.
In June, the House of representatives signaled support to remove the provision and included an amendment that would permanently remove the ban in the its Departments of Labor, Health, and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies Act of 2020.
However, Senate appropriators declined to include the language in its version of the draft fiscal year 2020 funding legislation. Sen. Rand Paul even proposed legislation to remove the language in HIPAA altogether, citing risks to patient privacy.
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But industry stakeholders like CHIME have been advocating for a unique patient identifier to both improve patient safety, while protecting patient privacy. CHIME has told HHS that in order to strengthen innovation in the sector, technology is needed to better identify patients, while the World Health Organization found that the misidentification of patients has led to an increased risk to patient safety from medical errors.
Privacy advocates have long stressed that a national identifier would actually bolster patient privacy, as it would improve the current use of Social Security numbers to identify patients. The argument is that the SSN unnecessarily ties a patient’s financial information to their medical data, thus increasing the value of healthcare records on the dark web.
While the funding bill does not include the language allowing for public funds to be used on the identifier, the explanatory statement stressed that ONC should work to support those efforts.
“The general provision limiting funds for actions related to promulgation or adoption of a standard providing for the assignment of a unique health identifier does not prohibit efforts to address the growing problems faced by health systems with patient matching,” the statement reads.
“The agreement encourages HHS to continue to provide technical assistance to private-sector-led initiatives to develop a coordinated national strategy that will promote patient safety by accurately identifying patients to their health information,” it continues.
Specifically, Congress directs ONC to coordinate with other appropriate federal agencies to assess the current technological and operational methods used to improve patient identification and provide Congress with a report on those efforts in one year.
The report must also include recommendations for ways to increase the accuracy of matching patients with their healthcare data, which may or may not include a standard for a unique patient health identifier.
ONC will also need to include both the risks and benefits of those efforts to the privacy and security of patient information.
AHIMA expressed support for the Congressional effort and the language designed to fuel the patient identification conversation in the healthcare sector.
“We are heartened by the inclusion of language that directs ONC to submit a report to Congress within one year that evaluates the effectiveness of technical and operational methods that improve identification of patients,” AHIMA CEO Wylecia Wiggs Harris wrote in an emailed statement.
“Patient identification is about enhancing data integrity and improving patient safety—this will continue to be a priority for AHIMA and we look forward to working with our fellow stakeholders and federal partners to address this critical issue,” she added.
Source: Healthit Security