After months of bipartisan work, the Senate health committee has released for public comment draft legislation designed to help improve the functionality and interoperability of electronic health records systems, and ease patient access to their healthcare data.

The 68-page draft bill, based a series of hearings held last year, tackles a wide range of technology topics impacting providers and patients alike.

The United States Capitol building in Washington DC
Wasin Pummarin

Interoperability, in particular, is a focus of the proposed legislation which targets the problem of information blocking—the act of intentionally interfering with the sharing of electronic health information between doctors and hospitals. The bill gives the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General authority to investigate and establish deterrents to information blocking by both providers and vendors.

In addition, the legislation seeks to promote interoperable health information exchange through several measures, including:

  • Convening existing data sharing networks to develop a model framework and common agreement for the secure exchange of health information across existing networks to help foster a “network of networks,”
  • Creating a digital provider directory to both facilitate exchange and allow users to verify the correct recipient,
  • Establishing an initial set of common data elements, such as a standard format for entering date of birth, to facilitate interoperability and streamline quality reporting, and
  • Supporting the secure exchange of electronic health information by certifying that one EHR product is capable of trusted exchange with multiple other EHR products.

“The committee has been working for months on legislation to help improve electronic health records, and it involves especially technical work to get this right, which is why our committee looks forward to feedback on today’s draft from doctors, hospitals, health IT developers, and other experts in this area of healthcare,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chair of the Senate health committee, in a Jan. 20 statement.

Also See: Senate Ready to Provide Legislative Fix to EHR Problems

The draft legislation includes provisions of the TRUST IT Act introduced by Sens. Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-La.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) that would make health IT systems accountable for their performance in three key areas: security, usability, and interoperability. In particular, the bill seeks to establish a HIT rating system to enable consumers to compare certified products on those three criteria. It also requires vendors to report on the performance of their products every two years and authorizes the assessment of fines—and in some cases decertification of products—for failing to report.

Reducing physician documentation is also a priority of the new draft Senate bill, which would allow nurses to document on behalf of doctors and calls for the convening of public/private stakeholders to develop recommendations to minimize the documentation burden on providers while maintaining quality. It also encourages the certification of HIT for specific specialty needs, such as pediatricians.

The bill also attempts to empower patients and improve their access to electronic health information by “supporting the certification and development of patient-centered health record technology so that patients can access their health information through secure and user-friendly software, which may update automatically.” Further, it encourages the use of health information exchanges to promote patient access and requires HHS to clarify situations where it is permissible for providers to share patient information by providing best practices and common cases where sharing is allowed.

Industry reaction to the draft legislation was swift and positive. Health IT Now, a coalition of patient groups, provider organizations, employers, and payers, issued a statement in support of the committee’s proposed bill applauding the senators for their efforts to ensure that HIT promotes better and more coordinated care, while also reducing the burden on providers.

“We are pleased to see the inclusion of provisions promoting widespread interoperability, prohibiting information blocking, and ensuring patients can access and use their own health information,” said Robert Horne, HITN senior vice president. “These issues are top priorities for our members, and are essential to leveraging health IT to improve health outcomes and lower costs. For too long, healthcare providers and patients have suffered under an ineffective and burdensome Meaningful Use program.”

The Senate committee is requesting feedback on the draft by Jan. 29. Comments can be submitted to bill is slated for consideration by the committee in a Feb. 9 executive session.

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