National Patient Identifier Gains Congressional Support

Congress will allow HHS to contribute technical assistance to the private sector for a national patient identifier.

By Kate Monica on

Proponents of a national patient identifier are pleased with the inclusion of certain language in a recently approved 2017 federal spending plan.

Congress has included report language in its FY 2017 Omnibus spending bill allowing HHS to lend technical assistance to the private sector for the development of a unique patient identifier (UPI).

Sign up for our newsletter!

After nearly two decades of earnest suggestion from organizations including CHIME and HIMSS, Congress has clarified the extent of federal restrictions on assisting private organizations in launching a national patient identifier under its UPI prohibition.

Instated in 1999, the prohibition was established after privacy concerns stemming from language in HIPAA barring HHS involvement in private sector development of a patient identifier.

However, health IT and health data exchange have since advanced to such a degree that many industry leaders believe a national patient identification system demands efforts from both the public and private sphere.

“No longer is a UPI considered a credible solution for the magnitude of the challenge,” said HIMSS Executive Vice President Carla Smith in a recent statement. “Rather, the focus has shifted to patient data matching and the need for a coordinated national strategy across the public and private healthcare sectors.”

A coordinated national strategy may soon be at hand with the addition of crucial language widening the scope of the role HHS plays in improving patient data matching.

The FY17 Omnibus appropriations legislation includes the following language allowing HHS to aid in the efforts toward an improved nationwide patient matching system: 

Unique Patient Health Identifier.—The Committee is aware that one of the most significant challenges inhibiting the safe and secure electronic exchange of health information is the lack of a consistent patient data matching strategy. With the passage of the HITECH Act, a clear mandate was placed on the Nation’s healthcare community to adopt electronic health records and health exchange capability. Although the Committee continues to carry a prohibition against HHS using funds to promulgate or adopt any final standard providing for the assignment of a unique health identifier for an individual until such activity is authorized, the Committee notes that this limitation does not prohibit HHS from examining the issues around patient matching. Accordingly, the Committee encourages the Secretary, acting through the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology and CMS, to provide technical assistance to private-sector led initiatives to develop a coordinated national strategy that will promote patient safety by accurately identifying patients to their health information.

This emendation to previous legislation comes after a group of 25 healthcare organizations penned a letter to members of the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations regarding the UPI prohibition.

Providers, payers, and health IT companies joined forces to insist HHS be permitted to lend the private sector technical assistance and expedite the development of a national patient identifier.

“Clarifying Congress’ commitment to ensuring patients are consistently matched to their healthcare data is a key barrier that needs to be addressed if we are to solve this problem,” wrote authors in the letter.

The revised language in the FY17 Omnibus bill is a nearly exact reproduction of that proposed in the letter. Expecting a slower response, undersigned healthcare organizations requested the modified language be included in the FY18 Labor-HHS spending bill.

However, Congress appears to have heeded the call of industry leaders sooner than expected, putting the requested changes in place less than a month after the letter was submitted.

This shift in legislation language marks a milestone in the effort toward a national patient identifier and validates the work of organizations that have been advocating for federal assistance for decades.

Tagged CHIMEHHSHIMSSNational Patient IdentifierPatient Safety

Dig Deeper

View on EHRIntelligence