Privacy, Compliance Management, Data Security

Healthcare groups renew call to remove funding ban on national patient identifier

An aerial view of the U.S. Capitol in Washington is seen May 12, 2021. (Air Force Staff Sgt. Brittany A. Chase/DoD)

The College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME), the Patient ID Now Coalition, and about 100 organizations are again asking Congress “to reject the inclusion of outdated rider language” to remove the funding ban to establish a standard for a national patient identifier.

The CHIME letter comes in response to the Fiscal Year 2023 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education and Related Agencies (Labor-HHS) Appropriations bill, which again contains the funding ban.

The decades-long battle began with an inclusion of rider language in an appropriations bill that prohibits the Department of Health and Human Services from spending federal funds to develop or adopt a unique patient identifier, despite the mandate for HHS to do so in The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

In 2009, before HIPAA went into effect, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, introduced the funding ban that effectively barred the agency from using funds to build the identifier and has remained in place ever since — despite calls from industry groups like CHIME warning of the risks to patient safety and privacy caused without it.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., picked up where his father left off and has been steadily working to leave the ban in place. Paul’s argument has leaned on risks to patient privacy, introducing a bill in 2020 that would have permanently removed the identifier provision from HIPAA altogether.

Healthcare faces "inverse" policy problem with patient privacy, groups say

CHIME has led the charge on the adoption of a patient identifier over the years, with progress made in 2020 before the language was, yet again, placed in the final 2020 appropriations bill. Last year, for the first time, the Senate Appropriations Committee removed the funding ban language.

The new letter argues that the inclusion of the language has led to a lack of consistency in patient identification, causing preventable medical errors and financial burdens to patients, clinicians, and healthcare entities. 

As it stands, Social Security numbers or identifiers based on some SSN variants are the most common identifier used by health systems. The steady reports of healthcare breaches in recent  years has clearly demonstrated the privacy risks posed by the practice. Ironically, the argument against the development of a unique patient identifier consistently cites patient privacy risks.

Indeed, the groups made the same argument that the “lack of a national strategy on patient identification contributes to serious patient privacy concerns within the health system.”

“Right now, the healthcare system faces an ‘inverse’ privacy problem: individuals must repeatedly disclose a significant amount of individually identifiable information to each healthcare provider they see in an attempt to achieve an accurate match of the patient to their medical record,” the groups wrote.

The groups are urging Congress to continue their bipartisan support to repeal the language and ensure “the archaic funding ban” is not included in this year’s appropriations bill. Without it, HHS can effectively evaluate patient identification solutions and identify the best approach to creating a national strategy for patient ID — all with patient privacy and security in focus.

Without a national identifier, innovation and progress has been stifled in healthcare, which has lead to medical errors and other patient safety risks. The groups noted that “these are situations that could have been avoided had patients been able to be accurately identified and matched with their records.”

ECRI named patient misidentification in its top 10 threats to patient safety.

Jessica Davis

The voice of healthcare cybersecurity and policy for SC Media, CyberRisk Alliance, driving industry-specific coverage of what matters most to healthcare and continuing to build relationships with industry stakeholders.

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