ONC New Emphasis On Health IT Interoperability Promises New Demands & Opportunities


Interoperability will be a key priority for the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (“ONC”) going forward.

That’s the message in the just released 2018 Report to Congress: Annual Update on the Adoption of a Nationwide System for the Electronic Use and Exchange of Health Information (“Report”).

The planned shift to demand greater interoperability promises to create new demands for employer-sponsored health plans, health insurers and others involved in the healthcare delivery and payment processes. Health plans and their insurers and sponsors should begin preparing for these new demands, as well as to leverage the new opportunities and manage the new risks they will create.

The Report describes barriers, actions taken, and recommendations as well as ONC’s path forward to implement the 21st Century Cures Act.

Under the 21st Century Cures Act, Congress gave HHS authority to enhance innovation, scientific discovery, and expand the access and use of health information through provisions related to:

  • The development and use of upgraded health IT capabilities;
  • Transparent expectations for data sharing, including through open application programming interfaces (APIs); and
  • Improvement of the health IT end user experience, including by reducing administrative burden.

These priorities seek to increase nationwide interoperability of health information and reduce clinician burden..

Current Status

The Report says increases in the adoption of health IT means most Americans receiving health care services now have their health data recorded electronically. However, this information is not always accessible across systems and by all end users—such as patients, health care providers, and payers—in the market in productive ways. For example:

  • Despite the individual right to access health information about themselves established by the HIPAA Privacy Rule, patients often lack access to their own health information, which hinders their ability to manage their health and shop for medical care at lower prices;
  • Health care providers often lack access to patient data at the point of care, particularly when multiple health care providers maintain different pieces of data, own different systems, or use health IT solutions purchased from different developers; and
  • Payers often lack access to clinical data on groups of covered individuals to assess the value of services provided to their customers.
  • The Report says these limitations create several problems, including:
    • Patients should be able to easily and securely access their medical data through their smartphones. Currently, patients electronically access their health information through patient portals that prevent them from easily pulling from multiple sources or health care providers. Patient access to their electronic health information also requires repeated use of logins and manual data updates.
    • For health care providers and payers, interoperable access and exchange of health records is focused on accessing one record at a time.
    • Payers cannot effectively represent their members if they lack computational visibility into which health care providers offer the highest quality care at the lowest cost. Without the capability to access multiple records across a population of patients, health care providers and payers will not benefit from the value of using modern computing solutions—such as machine learning and artificial intelligence—to inform care decisions and identify trends.
    • Payers and employer group health plans which purchase health care have little information on health outcomes. Often, health care providers and payers negotiate contracts based on the health care provider’s reputation rather than on the quality of care that health care provider offers to patients. Health care providers should instead compete based on the entire scope of the quality and value of care they provide, not on how exclusively they can craft their networks. Outcome data will allow payers to apply machine learning and artificial intelligence to have better insight into the value of the care they purchase.
  • Current Barriers
  • According to the Report, HHS heard from stakeholders over the past year that barriers to interoperable access to health information remain, including technical, financial, trust, and business practice barriers. These barriers impede the movement of health information to where it is needed across the care continuum. In addition, burden arising from quality reporting, documentation, administrative, and billing requirements that prescribe how health IT systems are designed also hamper the innovative usability of health IT.
  • Current and Upcoming Actions
  • The Report states HHS has many efforts to help ensure that electronic health information can be shared safely and securely where appropriate to improve the health and care of all Americans.
  • ONC also reports Federal agencies, states, and industry have taken steps to address technical, trust, and financial challenges to interoperable health information access, exchange, and use for patients, health care providers, and payers (including insurers). HHS aims to build on these successes through the ONC Health IT Certification Program, HHS rulemaking, health IT innovation projects, and health IT coordination.
  • In accordance with the Cures Act, HHS is actively leading and coordinating a number of key programs and projects. These include continued work to deter and penalize poor business practices and that HHS conducted multiple outreach efforts to engage the clinical community and health IT stakeholders to better understand these barriers, challenges, and health care provider burden.
  • Recommendations
  • The Report makes the following overarching recommendations for future actions HHS plans to support through its policies and that the health IT community as a whole can take to accelerate progress:
    • Focus on improving interoperability and upgrading technical capabilities of health IT, so patients can securely access, aggregate, and move their health information using their smartphones (or other devices) and health care providers can easily send, receive, and analyze patient data.
      Increase transparency in data sharing practices and strengthen technical capabilities of health IT so payers can access population-level clinical data to promote economic transparency and operational efficiency to lower the cost of care and administrative costs.
      Prioritize improving health IT and reducing documentation burden, time inefficiencies, and hassle for health care providers, so they can focus on their patients rather than their computers.

    The Report also says interoperable access underpins HHS’s efforts to pursue a health care system where data are available when and where needed.

    ONC intends to particularly focus on promoting open APIs. Open APIs are technology that allow one software program to access the services provided by another software program and can improve access and exchange of health information. ONC says APIs can:

    • Support patients’ ability to have more access to information electronically through, for example, smartphones and mobile applications. HHS applauds the emergence of patient-facing applications that allow patients to access, aggregate, and act on their health information; and
    • Allow payers to receive necessary and appropriate information on a group of members without having to access one record at a time.
    • Increase institutional accountability, support value- based care models, and lead to competitive medical care pricing that benefits patients.

    The Report claims patients, health care providers, and payers with appropriate access to health information can use modern computing solutions to generate value from the data. Improved interoperability can strengthen market competition, result in greater quality, safety, and value for the healthcare system, and enable patients, health care providers, and payers to experience the benefits of health IT.

    Prepare For Enhanced Operability Requirements

    ONC’s plan to achieve greater interoperability presents new business and compliance planning opportunities and challenges for health care providers, health insurers and other payers, health data and information technology (IT) providers and others. Among other things, participants in the healthcare system and their suppliers will need to prepare to comply with new expectations and mandates for interoperability. Meeting these demands will require financial expenditures as well as present technological challenges.The increased availability and access to electronica medical records and information resulting from these changes also a can be expected to drive new challenges and demands. Among other things, businesses relying on control of health information or records to influence or control patience, reimbursement, or other business value need to reevaluate and adjust their business models accordingly.

    Improve accessibility and interoperability also is likely to create new expectations and demands by patients, payers, other providers and perhaps most significantly for providers and payers, regulators. Participants in the system will need to understand these applications and prepare to both defend their business performance as well as their compliance taking into account these new demands.

    Amid all of this, of course, providers, pears, and their business associates can anticipate continued if not enhanced demands for enhanced data security and privacy protections and accompanying enforcement of these standards.

    As ONC move forward on its plans to enhance interoperability, all concerned stakeholders will want to monitor developments and provide thoughtful and timely input. The time to get started is now. ONC and it’s sister agency, the Office of Civil Rights currently are inviting public comments about how to achieve these and other health IT and privacy improvements. Those interested in providing input should make sure their comments are submitted by the applicable deadlines next month.

    ONC and it’s sister agency, the Office of Civil Rights currently are inviting public comments about how to achieve these and other health IT and privacy improvements. Read the full Report here and share your input by the specified deadlines.

    About the Author

    Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: Erisa & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years of managed care and other health industry, health and other benefit and insurance, workforce and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications.

    Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer has been continuously involved the design, regulation, administration and defense of managed care and other health and employee benefit, health care, human resources and other staffing and workforce arrangements, contracts, systems, and processes.  As a continuous component of this work, Ms. Stamer has worked closely with these and other clients on the design, development, administration, defense, and breach and data recovery of health care, workforce, insurance and financial services, trade secret and other information technology, data and related process and systems development, policy and operations throughout her career.

    Scribe of the ABA JCEB annual Office of Civil Rights agency meeting, Ms. Stamer also is widely recognized for her extensive work and leadership on leading edge health care and benefit policy and operational issues.

    Ms. Stamer’s clients include employers and other workforce management organizations; employer, union, association, government and other insured and self-insured health and other employee benefit plan sponsors, benefit plans, fiduciaries, administrators, and other plan vendors;  managed care organizations, insurers, self-insured health plans and other payers and their management; public and private, domestic and international hospitals, health care systems, clinics, skilled nursing, long-term care, rehabilitation and other health care providers and facilities; medical staff, health care accreditation, peer review and quality committees and organizations; managed care organizations, insurers, third-party administrative services organizations and other payer organizations; billing, utilization management, management services organizations; group purchasing organizations; pharmaceutical, pharmacy, and prescription benefit management and organizations; claims, billing and other health care and insurance technology and data service organizations; other health, employee benefit, insurance and financial services product and solutions consultants, developers and vendors; and other health, employee benefit, insurance, technology, government and other management clients.

    A former lead consultant to the Government of Bolivia on its Pension Privatization Project with extensive domestic and international public policy concerns in pensions, healthcare, workforce, immigration, tax, education and other areas, Ms. Stamer has been extensively involved in U.S. federal, state and local health care and other legislative and regulatory reform impacting these concerns throughout her career. Her public policy and regulatory affairs experience encompasses advising and representing domestic and multinational private sector health, insurance, employee benefit, employer, staffing and other outsourced service providers, and other clients in dealings with Congress, state legislatures, and federal, state and local regulators and government entities, as well as providing advice and input to U.S. and foreign government leaders on these and other policy concerns.

    Beyond her public policy and regulatory affairs involvement, Ms. Stamer also has extensive experience helping these and other clients to design, implement, document, administer and defend workforce, employee benefit, insurance and risk management, health and safety, and other programs, products and solutions, and practices; establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; comply with requirements, investigate and respond to government; accreditation and quality organizations; private litigation and other federal and state health care industry investigations and enforcement actions; evaluate and influence legislative and regulatory reforms and other regulatory and public policy advocacy; training and discipline; enforcement, and a host of other related concerns. Ms. Stamer’s experience in these matters includes supporting these organizations and their leaders on both a real-time, “on demand” basis with crisis preparedness, intervention and response as well as consulting and representing clients on ongoing compliance and risk management; plan and program design; vendor and employee credentialing, selection, contracting, performance management and other dealings; strategic planning; policy, program, product and services development and innovation; mergers, acquisitions, and change management; workforce and operations management, and other opportunities and challenges arising in the course of their operations.

    Ms. Stamer also has extensive health care reimbursement and insurance experience advising and defending plan sponsors, administrators, insurance and managed care organizations, health care providers, payers, and others about Medicare, Medicaid, Medicare and Medicaid Advantage, Tri-Care, self-insured group, association, individual and employer and association group and other health benefit programs and coverages including but not limited to advising public and private payers about coverage and program design and documentation, advising and defending providers, payers and systems and billing services entities about systems and process design, audits, and other processes; provider credentialing, and contracting; providers and payer billing, reimbursement, claims audits, denials and appeals, coverage coordination, reporting, direct contracting, False Claims Act, Medicare & Medicaid, ERISA, state Prompt Pay, out-of-network and other nonpar insured, and other health care claims, prepayment, post-payment and other coverage, claims denials, appeals, billing and fraud investigations and actions and other reimbursement and payment related investigation, enforcement, litigation and actions. Scribe for the ABA JCEB annual agency meeting with HHS OCR, she also has worked extensively on health and health benefit coding, billing and claims, meaningful use and EMR, billing and reimbursement, quality measurement and reimbursement, HIPAA, FACTA, PCI, trade secret, physician and other medical, workforce, consumer financial and other data confidentiality and privacy, federal and state data security, data breach and mitigation, and other information privacy and data security concerns.

    Author of leading works on a multitude of health care, health plan and other health industry matters, the American Bar Association (ABA) International Section Life Sciences Committee Vice Chair, a Scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) Annual OCR Agency Meeting, former Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, past ABA JCEB Council Representative and CLE and Marketing Committee Chair, past Board President of Richardson Development Center (now Warren Center) for Children Early Childhood Intervention Agency, past North Texas United Way Long Range Planning Committee Member, and past Board Member and Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer’s health industry clients include public health organizations; public and private hospitals, healthcare systems, clinics and other health care facilities; physicians, physician practices, medical staff, and other provider organizations; skilled nursing, long-term care, assisted living, home health, ambulatory surgery, dialysis, telemedicine, DME, Pharma, clinics, and other health care providers; billing, management and other administrative services organizations; insured, self-insured, association and other health plans; PPOs, HMOs and other managed care organizations, insurance, claims administration, utilization management, and other health care payers; public and private peer review, quality assurance, accreditation and licensing; technology and other outsourcing; healthcare clearinghouse and other data; research; public and private social and community organizations; real estate, technology, clinical pathways, and other developers; investors, banks and financial institutions; audit, accounting, law firm; consulting; document management and recordkeeping, business associates, vendors, and service providers and other professional and other health industry organizations; academic medicine; trade associations; legislative and other law making bodies and others.

    A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about contracting, credentialing and quality assurance,  compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, privacy and data security, and other risk management and operational matters. Author of works on Payer and Provider Contracting and many other managed care concerns, Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns.

    A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares her thought leadership, experience and advocacy on these and other related concerns by her service in the leadership of the Solutions Law Press, Inc. Coalition for Responsible Health Policy, its PROJECT COPE: Coalition on Patient Empowerment, and a broad range of other professional and civic organizations including North Texas Healthcare Compliance Association, a founding Board Member and past President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence, past Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; former Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children (now Warren Center For Children); current Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee, current Vice Chair of Policy for the Life Sciences Committee of the ABA International Section, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, a current Defined Contribution Plan Committee Co-Chair, former Group Chair and Co-Chair of the ABA RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, past Representative and chair of various committees of ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits; an ABA Health Law Coordinating Council representative, former Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division, past Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee, a former member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Benefits Association and others.

    For more information about Ms. Stamer or her health industry and other experience and involvements, see here or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

    About Solutions Law Press, Inc.™

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    NOTICE: These statements and materials are for general informational and purposes only. They do not establish an attorney-client relationship, are not legal advice or an offer or commitment to provide legal advice, and do not serve as a substitute for legal advice. Readers are urged to engage competent legal counsel for consultation and representation in light of the specific facts and circumstances presented in their unique circumstance at any particular time. No comment or statement in this publication is to be construed as legal advise or an admission. The author reserves the right to qualify or retract any of these statements at any time. Likewise, the content is not tailored to any particular situation and does not necessarily address all relevant issues. Because the law is rapidly evolving and rapidly evolving rules makes it highly likely that subsequent developments could impact the currency and completeness of this discussion. The presenter and the program sponsor disclaim, and have no responsibility to provide any update or otherwise notify any participant of any such change, limitation, or other condition that might affect the suitability of reliance upon these materials or information otherwise conveyed in connection with this program. Readers may not rely upon, are solely responsible for, and assume the risk and all liabilities resulting from their use of this publication.

    Circular 230 Compliance. The following disclaimer is included to ensure that we comply with U.S. Treasury Department Regulations. Any statements contained herein are not intended or written by the writer to be used, and nothing contained herein can be used by you or any other person, for the purpose of (1) avoiding penalties that may be imposed under federal tax law, or (2) promoting, marketing or recommending to another party any tax-related transaction or matter addressed herein.

    ©2019. Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ For information about republication, please contact the author directly. All other rights reserved.

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