As the industry pushes back on looming interoperability rules, a top federal official on Tuesday reinforced the message that scare tactics about patient privacy won't prevent the administration from moving forward. He referred to at least one health system that signed onto a letter criticizing the regulatory approach from vendor Epic Corp.
Health systems often take patients to court to collect outstanding medical debts. These lawsuits make patients' personal and healthcare-related information public through discovery, where both sides can obtain evidence from each other.
"Your medical care is public because it's now part of a court record," HHS national coordinator for health information technology Dr. Don Rucker said at AcademyHealth's 2020 Health Datapalooza conference in Washington.
If hospitals were really concerned about patient privacy, they wouldn't force the public disclosure of patients' wage garnishment and medical procedures through lawsuits, Rucker said.
A JAMA study last year found that just a third of Virginia hospitals garnished wages.
"The practice of aggressively suing patients represents a small fraction of hospitals," Dr. Marty Makary, an author of the JAMA study and a Johns Hopkins Medicine surgeon, said at the time.
HHS proposed new rules last year that would compel healthcare providers and insurers to adopt open data-sharing technology, among other changes. Doing so would allow patients to easily move their health information between providers or plans using third-party apps.
Hospitals, insurers and some health IT organizations have opposed the rules, claiming that the new standards could put patient privacy at risk because third-party app developers don't have to abide by the same privacy standards—including HIPAA—as the healthcare industry.
But the administration and supporters of the proposed interoperability standards say that while protecting privacy is critical, it's essential to give patients control of their health data. Hospitals and health plans are trying to protect their so-called "walled gardens" from competition by making it harder for patients to switch plans or providers, they argue.
"We've been quite good at guild protection in healthcare, so it might take a little longer (to achieve health IT interoperability)," Rucker said.
This article was clarified to note that Rucker was referring to one health system in his comments.