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One of the requirements of the HIPAA Administrative Simplification Rules was the development of a national identifier for all patients. Such an identifier would be used by all healthcare organizations to match patients with health records from multiple sources and would improve the reliability of health information and ensure it could be shared quickly and efficiently.
That national patient identifier has failed to materialize. For the past two decades, the Department of Health and Human Services has been prohibited from using funds to develop or promote a unique patient identifier system out of concerns over privacy and security of patient data.
Just as was the case in 1996, the benefits of using national patient identifiers remain and the need for such a system is greater than ever. Many hospitals, healthcare and health IT groups have been urging Congress to lift the HHS ban due to the benefits that would come from using a national identifier.
They argue it would make it much easier to match medical information from multiple sources with the correct patient and the potential for errors would be greatly reduced. Together with the cost savings, adoption of a national patient identifier would improve the quality of care provided to patients and patient safety.
Now, 20 years after the ban was put in place, it is closer to being lifted. The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted on several amendments to a $99.4 billion HHS appropriations bill. The amendment calling for the lifting of the ban was proposed by Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) and was passed on Wednesday 12, June in a 246 to 178 vote. Until now, neither chamber in Congress has ever voted to lift the ban.
“For the last 21 years, this misguided policy has been in place, and thousands of Americans have died due to getting the wrong drug to the wrong patient or due to incorrect or incomplete electronic medical records, all arising from the inability to simply and correctly merge health records from different systems,” said Rep. Foster.
The passing of the amendment is the first step toward a national identifier being developed, but there are plenty of hurdles to overcome before the ban is finally lifted. The appropriations bill must first be passed, and the senate would need to give its approval, then the president would need to sign the bill into law.
Even though the benefits of a national patient identifier are clear, many privacy advocates believe the privacy and security risks are too great and that adoption of a national identifier would result in loss of control of patient data and more frequent, larger, and more damaging healthcare data breaches.