HHS Secretary Azar blasts Epic's 'scare tactics' in opposition to data-sharing rules

HHS Secretary Alex Azar on Monday voiced frustration over stakeholders fiercely opposing a proposed regulation that would make it easier for patients to access their health data.

Speaking at Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT's Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., Azar said the current medical records system was "segmented" and "balkanized," which hinders patients' access to health information and impacts care.

Appearing to blast electronic health records company Epic's efforts to drum up opposition against the rule, Azar said, "Scare tactics are not going to stop the reforms we need."

He added, "Defending the current balkanized state and status quo is a highly unpopular position to take."

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The goal of ONC's interoperability rule, released last year, is to enable patients to access electronic health records at no cost, he said.

"Providers should be able to use health IT tools to provide the best care for patients without excessive cost or technical barriers," he said.

"Unfortunately, some industry stakeholders are defending the balkanized, outdated status quo," Azar said. He also noted that companies holding patient data have "prevented new market entrants from participating in the space."

Epic has risen up in recent weeks to be the most prominent, vocal critic of the proposed regulation. Last week, Epic CEO Judy Faulkner emailed hospital chief executives urging them to speak out against the ONC rule.

The ONC rule is currently under review by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the last step before publication. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services' proposed interoperability rule (PDF) also is under review at OMB.

Azar did not provide a timeline of when the interoperability rules would be published.

Big tech giants Apple and Microsoft, health IT vendors and health plans also have weighed in and plan to meet with OMB today to voice strong support for releasing the interoperability rules "without further delay."

RELATED: Epic CEO emails hospital customers urging them to speak out against ONC interoperability rule

Even as the head of HHS, Azar has experienced his own frustrations with accessing his medical records, he said.

"In the past month, I've spent hours trying to get access to my health records and have not had my call returned to get into them," he said. "There obviously is no preferential treatment here. This is equal opportunity frustration."

"This is not just frustrating as each of these issues poses an opportunity for medical error," Azar said.

While receiving medical care at a hospital, Azar said the physicians wanted to switch him to a more powerful statin medication and he declined to take the medication.

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"That information wasn’t incorporated into my record. That night, I got some pills, including the drug that I did not consent to take," he said.

The Trump Administration also has taken other steps to increase transparency and competition in the healthcare industry. In November, HHS released a final rule to require hospitals by January 2021 to publish payer-negotiated prices and a proposal to mandate insurers post online real-time cost-sharing information.

CMS also proposed an insurance rule would require insurers to disclose on a public site their negotiated rates for in-network providers and allowed amounts paid for out-of-network providers.