Healthcare lobbyists made their way back into the limelight recently when several major groups took to the U.S. Senate to speak passionately about removing the two-decade-old ban on unique national patient identifiers.

These health information management leaders told members of Congress that the use of federal funds to adopt such a nationwide identifier would allow collaboration between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the private sector.

This federal funding is crucial for identification solutions that may reduce medical errors and protect patient privacy. So says the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) and the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME), among a host of others.

In a hosted congressional briefing, leaders from each of the organization set about to encourage Senate support for the U.S. House of Representatives’ recent repeal of the ban as part of the FY2020 Labor, HHS and Education and Related Agencies (Labor-HHS) Appropriations bills.

"Critical to patient safety and care coordination is ensuring patients are accurately identified and matched to their data," said AHIMA CEO Wylecia Wiggs Harris, PhD, CAE. "The time has come to remove this archaic ban and empower HHS to explore a full range of patient matching solutions hand in hand with the private sector focused on increasing patient safety and moving us closer to achieving nationwide interoperability."

During the briefing, members of the American Medical Informatics Association and the American College of Surgeons jumped into the fray to share stories of existing patient identification challenges; patient safety implications that can arise when identifying data is matched to the wrong patient; and when essential data is lacking from a patient’s record because of identity issues.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) did once require such an identifier when the it first came to being in 1998. However, Congress included language as part of the annual appropriations process that prohibited HHS from using federal funds intended for the creation of a unique patient identifier out of privacy concerns.

Congress said the identifier was a privacy concern. Some believe this was the correct course of action, citing the scale of implementation of such a program and would "come with astronomical costs, increased possibilities of fraud and privacy breaches and create room for potentially fatal medical mistakes."

There is currently no national standard for identifying patients and implementing such a system would be no simple task. Researchers estimate the cost lies somewhere between $1.5 billion and $11.1 billion.

According to RAND Corporation, the congressional patient identifier ban has led to reliance on the alternative approach to creating a patient identifier: the use of statistical matching techniques to identify and access patient information. This involves identifying patients by matching patient data — name, address, zip code or other information — with medical records.

"Now more than ever we need a nationwide unique patient identifier to ensure that patients are correctly identified in our increasingly digital healthcare ecosystem," said CHIME president and CEO Russell Branzell. “This is a top priority for our members. We applaud the House for taking a leadership role on this issue by removing the ban and we strongly encourage the Senate to do the same."