Lawmakers pressure ONC to release information blocking rule

Senate amendment would require agency to provide Congress with an update by September 30.

Members of the U.S. Senate are turning up the heat on the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT to release its long-awaited proposed rule on information blocking.

The move signals increasing pressure on the agency to release details of how it aims to enable individuals to more easily get their health information and share it with providers and others.

A bipartisan amendment to the Senate’s Department of Defense and Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2019, authored by Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), would require the Department of Health and Human Services to provide Congress with an update by September 30 on its progress in establishing the information blocking regulations.

As directed by the 21st Century Cures Act, Health and Human Services and ONC are required to improve the interoperability of healthcare information. Currently, ONC is developing a proposed rule that will be used by the HHS Office of the Inspector General to take enforcement activities against those “bad actors” that impede the electronic flow of health data.

Under the Cures Act, the HHS OIG is given the authority to investigate claims of information blocking and assign financial penalties of as much as $1 million per violation for practices found to be interfering with the lawful sharing of electronic health records.

Earlier this month, National Coordinator for Health IT Don Rucker told ONC’s Interoperability Forum in Washington that information blocking is a difficult issue to “sort out,” particularly when it comes to coming up with exceptions to the definition of information blocking defined in the Cures Act.

“Dr. Rucker’s June blog post lays out the direction we are heading and that we are working across HHS to develop a comprehensive proposed rule to address anti-competitive practices that inhibit the access and exchange of electronic health information,” said an ONC spokesperson in a written statement. “We are still working to release the proposed rule sometime this fall.”

However, healthcare organizations are getting impatient with the lack of progress from the agency. Earlier this month, 14 groups, including the American Medical Informatics Association and Health IT Now, sent a letter to ONC and the OIG, noting that more than 600 days have passed since the Cures Act was signed into law and “it is past time” for proposed information blocking regulations to be released.

Also See: Health IT Now, professional groups push ONC on info blocking regs

On Wednesday, Health IT Now—a coalition of patient groups, provider organizations, employers and payers—announced its support for the Cassidy-Whitehouse amendment, which the organization would like to see included in the final spending bill.

“Information blocking represents a senseless barrier to true interoperability and a continued threat to patient safety that must be addressed. Bipartisan majorities in Congress recognized this when they rightly added key information blocking provisions to the 21st Century Cures Act but, more than 600 days after its enactment, we are still waiting on these rules of the road to be released,” said Catherine Pugh, Health IT Now’s senior director of government affairs, in a written statement.

“We have met with countless officials in the Trump administration who share our commitment to combating the perils of information blocking, and we believe they are acting in good faith to release these rules promptly but, in the meantime, it is fitting that Congress would put oversight measures in place to ensure that the intent of 21st Century Cures is followed and that the administration upholds its end of the bargain,” Pugh added.

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