ONC Launches Its Final Rule Against Information Blocking, Resulting In Widespread Industry Confusion

The past year has exposed a number of flaws and weaknesses in healthcare at every level, including patient information management. In 2020, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) issued its final set of rules, or “final rule,” that fulfills the interoperability and information-blocking provisions of the 21st Century Cures Act, establishing the most comprehensive federal healthcare data-sharing policies to date. It also establishes new, standards-based application programming interface (API) certification criteria, creating new technical requirements as well.

However, implementing the prohibition guides has proved a cumbersome task as the April 5 deadline passed. A recent survey of 4,000 clinical, technology, and administrative leaders from provider, payer, IT, and other organizations reveals that many healthcare professionals are unprepared to meet interoperability standards. The deadline for rule implementation was extended from its original launch date, November 2, 2020, to provide some flexibility for organizations, but it’s clear that the delay didn’t necessarily motivate a quicker adoption. Some entities are still unsure what “information blocking” is, further illustrating the dire need for better healthcare data-sharing.

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Healthcare interoperability concerns the ease of information and electronic health record (EHR) sharing between physicians, health systems, other providers, and patients. The 21st Century Cures Act, which passed in 2016, prohibits practices that interfere with the access, exchange, and use of electronic health information. With the delay in the Biden Administration transition, the new Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), Xavier Becerra, was not confirmed by the U.S. Senate until March 18th, putting the department at a disadvantage when it comes to implementing new key healthcare initiatives.

Healthcare IT services providers that can take quick action helping providers become final-rule-compliant will certainly be rewarded by customers who seek to avoid HHS penalties—and will be successful in avoiding penalties to their own organizations. Healthcare IT developers who are not compliant with the ONC’s final rule regarding information blocking can incur a penalty of up to $1 million per violation.

For the first 18 months of the rule’s implementation, the information that can be blocked is limited to the data defined by the United States Core Data for Interoperability (USCDI) standards, and there are also a few exceptions in place for the protection of patients, as well. The eight specific exemptions include issues of privacy, security, and harm prevention, and shield some providers from being labeled as “information blockers.” Thankfully, the ONC has released a series of guides and tools to help developers comply while penalty enforcement is still hypothetical.