The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is developing a new Blue Button application programming interface that will enable Medicare beneficiaries to connect their claims data to third-party apps, services and research programs of their choosing that they trust.

CMS has been a participant in the public-private Blue Button initiative, which includes the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs as well as provider organizations and health plans, since it was launched in 2010. The goal has been to provide patients with easy, secure online access to their health information.

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However, Blue Button has limited functionality and scalability, making it difficult for beneficiaries to use and share their health information, according to Mark Scrimshire, part of the Entrepreneur-in-Residence program at CMS.

While Blue Button has been used by more than 1 million beneficiaries to download their CMS information via the MyMedicare.gov portal, current downloadable plain text and PDF files are very challenging to use when handling large amounts of data or converting the content into reusable data for further analysis.

Scrimshire, who is technical lead for the agency’s Blue Button API project, says the purpose of the effort is to create a data-as-a-service platform that will enhance Blue Button’s capabilities to make them simple, safe and easy for users.

“The core of what we’re doing is really about consumer-mediated exchange—you being able to control who you share your data with,” Scrimshire told an audience on Thursday at the 2017 Health Datapalooza conference in Washington. “We’re basically trying to build a developer-friendly, standards-based data API.”

CMS is leveraging Health Level 7 International’s emerging Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) standard to ensure data is in a structured format that can be accepted by a wide range of apps, as well as OAuth—an open security standard for token-based authentication and authorization.

The FHIR-based Blue Button platform is envisioned as making the data more actionable for patients. After all, the patient is the “de facto health information exchange,” Scrimshire contends, and should have access to their own health information in a format they can use to better manage and improve their healthcare. “We’ve actually made a little bit of progress. We’re gradually inching forwards,” he adds.

Currently, CMS Blue Button provides three years of Medicare Parts A, B, and D claims history. Scrimshire says the agency is taking that data and putting it into a structure that computers can easily understand.

“When you connect that with an API, now applications can come along and do something useful with that data for you,” he concludes. “APIs really are the future.”

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