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Verma: Private actors are using privacy as pretext to hold patient data hostage

The Trump administration continues to circle the wagons in its defense of the federal government’s efforts to enable patient access to their electronic health information.

Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is the third Department of Health and Human Services official in as many days to take healthcare stakeholders to task for their criticism of a proposed rule by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT to improve access to patient medical records.

“A truly interoperable healthcare system has the potential to deliver better access, safety and quality that patients need while unleashing data,” said Verma on Wednesday at the CMS Healthcare Innovation Industry Day in Washington. “We have made it clear to providers that they don’t own a patient’s data and they must give it to their patients.”

In March, ONC issued a proposed rule requiring healthcare providers to offer patients’ access to their electronic health information through secure, standards-based application programming interfaces.

Nonetheless, while supporting ONC’s overall goal of patient access to data, stakeholders such as the American Medical Association and electronic health record vendor Epic Systems have made the case that—absent appropriate privacy protections—finalizing ONC’s proposed rule, as written, would put patient information at risk.

Epic issued a statement on Monday about the pending ONC rule, which the company contends inadvertently creates “serious risks” to privacy by requiring providers to send patient data to API-enabled apps requested by patients.

“There are no transparency requirements to make it very clear to the patient what data the app is taking and what the app will do with that data,” according to Epic, which was encouraging the heads of some of the largest U.S. hospital organizations to oppose the ONC rule.

However, Verma on Wednesday emphasized that patient privacy is a priority for the Trump administration and that “the disingenuous efforts by certain private actors to use privacy—as vile as it is—as a pretext for holding patient data hostage is an embarrassment to the industry.”

She added that “access to one’s data can be a matter of life and death and this Administration will not waiver in ensuring that patients enjoy full ownership of their data.”

“The sort of consumer-oriented revolution that will make the healthcare system more affordable and accessible is undermined by those bad actors throughout the system that continue to guard the status quo because it’s in the interests of their short term profits,” concluded Verma, who said this “self-serving mentality” must immediately end. “The shortsightedness of such efforts is deeply troubling considering the broad frustration of the American people with the status quo.”

Likewise, HHS Secretary Alex Azar on Monday also lashed out at stakeholders that are critical of ONC’s proposed rule. Speaking at the ONC annual meeting, Azar charged that EHR systems today are “balkanized” and “segmented” creating data silos that prevent patients from accessing their health information.

Also See: Azar defends patient access to EHR data under ONC rule, but pushback resumes

“Unfortunately, some industry stakeholders are defending the balkanized, outdated status quo,” Azar said, adding that some vendors holding patient data have “prevented new market entrants from participating in the space.”

On Tuesday at the ONC meeting, National Coordinator for HIT Don Rucker echoed Azar’s remarks by pointing out that “there are all kinds of economic interests of folks who have spent their lives and careers in this space.”

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