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CHIME, AHIMA push Senate on national patient identifier

The U.S. House of Representatives voted to lift a ban on using federal funds to create a national patient identifier. Healthcare leaders now want the U.S. Senate to do the same.

The healthcare industry is continuing to push for a national patient identifier.

At a congressional briefing yesterday, healthcare leaders applauded last month's repeal by the U.S. House of Representatives of a nearly two-decade ban on using federal funds to adopt a nationwide patient identifier, a unique number patients would use across the national healthcare system. They pressed the U.S. Senate to follow suit. The briefing was hosted by the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) and the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME).

Healthcare leaders like Marc Probst, CIO at Intermountain Healthcare, argued that a unique patient identifier would help reduce medical errors by making it easier to match patients to their data. He said he has seen firsthand the consequences patients face without one.

"Misidentifications threaten patient safety and drive unnecessary costs to health systems in an era when the industry and congress are trying to lower healthcare costs," Probst, a speaker at the briefing, said in a statement. "Congress has an opportunity to fix this, but only if the senate also removes the ban on a unique patient identifier."

Today, healthcare providers use patient names and dates of birth to identify their EHR records. That information is not always unique to the patient. Lifting the ban would enable the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to collaborate with the private sector to identify ways to reduce medical errors and protect patient privacy, according to the statement CHIME and AHIMA released after the .

Forrester analyst Jeff Becker echoed Probst's sentiments, saying the lack of a national patient identifier "creates a litany of issues for the healthcare industry."

Currently, every time a patient receives care at a different provider organization, a patient record is created, according to Becker. The result is duplicated records that make it difficult to create a complete view of the patient or study healthcare trends at a national level, he said.

"Exchanging medical records between provider organizations becomes problematic without a reliable way of identifying the patient," Becker said.

Unique patient identifier and government

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which was signed into law in 1996, originally required unique identifiers to be created. But in 1998, Congress removed the requirement and prohibited HHS from using federal funds to create the patient identifiers due to concerns that such a program could create security issues or violate patient privacy.

Larry Wolff, CEO at consulting firm Wolff Strategy Partners, said having unique patient identification makes "a ton of sense," but that involving the federal government and federal funds does not. He said healthcare systems are capable of building unique patient identifiers themselves, such as the use of biometrics like fingerprints, without taxpayer dollars.

Wolff believes the idea of a national patient identifier is an "incredibly politically charged" debate that centers on opening the door for nationalizing healthcare and Medicare for All. 

"You can't do Medicare for All without a national patient ID," he said. 

Frost & Sullivan analyst Michael Jude said that while the issue of a national patient identifier is "complex," the idea is not unique, as evidenced by other use cases such as Social Security numbers. But with healthcare, the discussion tends to be more "emotionally charged," especially around personal privacy with having a particular identifier associated with patient medical records, he said. But he also notes that a national patient identifier could significantly benefit the healthcare system.

"If you had a unique healthcare identifier, then things like interoperability between systems like EHRs and clinical decision support systems and billing systems, it might conceivably be a lot easier because you'd have a point of interface for all of those," Jude said.

Dig Deeper on Federal health care policy issues and health care reform

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