The Nationwide Health Information Network will get its first real-world test early next year when the Social Security Administration begins using it to access electronic medical records held by a private health information exchange, NHIN planners and SSA officials said Dec 16.
SSA will use the data to help it adjudicate applications for disability assistance and speed those benefits to qualified recipients.
The SSA project will not have the kind of direct clinical payoff the Health and Human Services Department envisioned when it drafted plans for a secure, interoperable national health network. But SSA's secondary use of the health information nonetheless marks the onset of NHIN's production phase.
"This will have a huge impact on this agency and the people we serve," said Bill Gray, SSA's deputy commissioner for systems, at the NHIN Forum in Washington this week. "The NHIN will revolutionize the way we deliver services."
At the heart of the rollout is SSA's use of a federal NHIN gateway to receive medical information held by MedVirginia, an HIE based in Richmond, Va. When someone seeks disability benefits, SSA will contact MedVirginia, show authorization from the patient and electronically access the appropriate health records from the beneficiary's medical provider.
Although MedVirginia will be the first user of the network via the federal NHIN gateway, SSA is also working with the North Carolina Healthcare Information and Communications Alliance, a nonprofit consortium based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., and Kaiser Permanente to access applicants' records.
Direct access to those records is expected to streamline the agency's claims-application process and speed approval and disbursement of disability benefits, which total about $60 billion every month. In the past, processing those applications was time-consuming and labor-intensive. As baby boomers age and disability applications increase, SSA must improve its efficiency or risk being buried in an administrative avalanche.
Proponents say widespread adoption of NHIN " with its ability to retrieve and securely exchange health information " could largely automate the processing of disability claims.
"Social Security is proud to be a leader in the use of health information technology," SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue said. "This safe and secure method for receiving electronic medical records will allow us to improve our service to the public by cutting days, if not weeks, off the time it takes to make a disability decision."