Pew Urges HHS to Maintain Current Timelines for Interoperability Regulations

April 6, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the importance of these regulations, the organization stated

Although there has been some talk that because providers are overwhelmed with COVID-19, federal health officials could push back timelines for their two final interoperability regulations, The Pew Charitable Trusts is arguing that the epidemic has emphasized the need to move them forward without delay.

Last month, final rules from both the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) around interoperability and patient access were both released. The two new rules clarify issues around information blocking, as defined by the administration, and promote the development of a nationally consistent patient access API (application programming interface) concept, designed to make access to their electronic health records (EHRs) available to all patients through their smartphones.

The rules apply to all hospitals, physicians, and health plans that receive any reimbursement through either the Medicare or Medicaid programs. They also affect the technology vendors that these organizations use.

Some of the timelines within the regulations—such as the information blocking provisions in ONC’s rule—were slated to be enforced as soon as six months from then the final rule was published in the Federal Register. In general, though, most implementation timelines related to elements such as EHR updates and API-related requirements will go into effect starting in two years.

But during a recent Health IT Advisory Committee meeting, it was reported that discussions were being had about delaying the timelines for both the ONC and CMS rules. The non-profit Pew Charitable Trusts, a research and policy organization, noted in a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar that “The COVID-19 pandemic gripping the nation underscores the importance of these regulations in enabling greater data exchange and providing patients with their information.”

The group noted that the outbreak has results in “seeing historic shifts in the way healthcare is delivered—with more patients and providers relying on telemedicine to meet healthcare needs.” They added that with mandatory stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines, patients may lack the ability to go into a hospital or doctor’s office to pick up their records.

“Additionally, patients may be seeing new clinicians via telehealth for the very first time due to restrictions on in person office hours or because of their symptoms. What these patients share is a greater need to have remote access and exchange of their health data to make more informed healthcare decisions,” the letter stated.

It further noted, “HHS’s new rules are essential in facilitating this connection through greater use of APIs, which help obviate the need for patients to get their records in person because they will be able to more easily get and share their records from a personal device.”

At least one prominent health IT leader agrees with the organization. In a recent interview with Healthcare Innovation, John Halamka, M.D., president of Mayo Clinic Platform, noted that people have brought up the burden of working on compliance issues in the world of COVID-19. “But in the world of COVID-19, patients having access to their data is even more important. So, yes, you could relax those deadlines, but maybe you should speed them up, to be honest,” said Halamka.

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