HHS may delay implementation of data-sharing rules due to COVID-19 outbreak

The Trump administration is considering rolling back the implementation of major interoperability rules due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Federal policymakers are evaluating whether to push back the timeline for providers, payers, and health IT vendors to implement recent data-sharing regulations, said Denise St. Clair, a program analyst in the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services' health informatics office during a Health IT Advisory Committee meeting on Wednesday.

"We’re in a unique situation and we’re thinking through all the real and incredibly important work that everybody needs to be focusing on right now," said St. Clair, responding to HITAC committee members' questions about adjusting the timelines for the regulations given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. "That is something that is definitely under consideration. We’re assessing the situation and looking for feedback."

Committee member Jim Jirjis, chief health information officer at HCA Healthcare, said moving forward with the current timelineswith some requirements starting in six monthscould "inadvertently pull people off important pandemic work."

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Russell Branzell, president and CEO of the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME), agreed that the Health and Human Services department should delay enforcement of the regulations so as not to burden health IT leaders.

"The CIOs I've spoken to say they are not working on [the interoperability rules] right now. They are focused on taking care of patients," Branzell told FierceHealthcare.

The Trump administration released on March 9 widely-anticipated rules that will change how providers, insurers, and patients exchange health data. The rules implement interoperability and patient access provisions of the bipartisan 21st Century Cures Act passed in 2016.

Specifically, the regulations will allow patients to access and download their health records with third-party apps. To make that happen, the rules require hospitals, payers, and health IT vendors to adopt technology capabilities such as application programming interfaces (APIs). 

Some requirements, such as the mandate that hospitals enable electronic admission, discharge and/or transfer notification, go into effect in six months. Other requirements have longer two-year timelines, such as the mandate for health IT vendors to enable patients to download all the information in their electronic health record.

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Payer and provider organizations have recently said the timelines to implement HHS' interoperability regulations are "troubling" and not realistic given the current evolving pandemic.

But some members of HITAC, which advises Congress and HHS on health IT policy, are urging the interoperability regulations to be fast-tracked rather than delayed.

"Can we do better than 24 months?" said Cynthia Fisher, founder and chairman of PatientRightsAdvocate.org, referring to some of the two-year requirement timelines. "In light of this coronavirus, it's even more imperative that we move faster."

She added, "We’re in an incredible shapeshift of how healthcare will be delivered, with taking care of people in their homes, with the new level of remote care, and bringing on national access for physicians to do telehealth. It behooves us to come together and do better."

During the HITAC meeting, Donald Rucker M.D., the national coordinator for health IT, said the coronavirus pandemic highlights the urgent need for better data sharing in healthcare and the importance of implementing the rules.