Technology providers are optimistic that, after close to 20 years, they may be gaining ground on efforts to remove a ban on the use of federal funds to adopt a nationwide unique patient identifier.

Health information management experts gained momentum when the House of Representatives recently repealed the ban as part of its FY2020 Labor, HHS and Education and Related Agencies (Labor-HHS) Appropriations bills.

On Monday, American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) held a Congressional briefing to garner Senate support.

For years, AHIMA and the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) have pushed officials to allow private stakeholders to work with HHS on a possible patient ID solution. 

“There’s tremendous potential,” AHIMA Vice President of Policy and Government Affairs Lauren Riplinger told McKnight’s on Monday. “If we remove this language, it allows us to start this conversation, to ask what the best strategy is moving forward for a patient whenever the setting, so that we are identifying the correct patient with the correct information.”

At stake are electronic systems across the healthcare continuum, including skilled nursing facilities, where data can be matched to the wrong resident or when critical data is missing due to privacy concerns. The original version of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) required a unique health identifier system, but an appropriations process prohibited HHS from using federal funds to create one. Today, many systems rely on only a patient’s name and date of birth.

“Those of us who work in provider organizations have seen the serious consequences of this ban on patients and their families,” said Marc Probst, CIO at Intermountain Healthcare and a member of the CHIME Policy Steering Committee. “Misidentifications threaten patient safety and drive unnecessary costs to health systems in an era when the industry and Congress are trying to lower healthcare costs.”

Those in favor of the ban have argued a new system might increase privacy problems for healthcare records. But Riplinger says in today’s cyber environment, Social Security numbers, Medicare enrollment information and dates of birth are much more interesting to potential hackers than random patient identifiers.

“What we would argue is that we have an inverse privacy problem where patients are matched on different data elements and where a lot of folks want that information,” she said. “If we were able to reduce those elements to match a patient and do it to one alpha number, it makes the data more secure.”