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A Statewide Health Information Exchange Would Strengthen Public Health

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By Claudia Williams, Special to CalMatters

Claudia Williams is CEO of Manifest MedEx, a nonprofit health data network, Claudia.williams@manifestmedex.org.

Disrupting the health care status quo takes courage.

Recently, Assemblymember Jim Wood, who chairs the Health Committee, stood up boldly for a statewide infrastructure for sharing health data to strengthen public health, improve equity, transform Medi-Cal, and improve the quality and affordability of health services.

In the hearing, Wood stated firmly his support for a health information exchange: “Further study or an approach protecting one’s business interest is of absolutely no concern to me. Our priorities are about how to provide better patient care in a more coordinated way as well as obtaining greater population health data.”

He reaffirmed that position in a tweet the next day: “I know that building a workable #HIE will likely be disruptive to the status quo but I want to best serve the state and Californians.”

Although health data exchange has increased in California, we still lack the kind of comprehensive shared, statewide health information system, partnered with the state, that other regions have developed, including New York, Indiana and Colorado.

Regional leaders representing community health plans, health care organizations and physicians spoke at the hearing on the benefits statewide connectivity could deliver for California. As the hearing speakers outlined, the tragic challenges we have faced in the past year – from the pandemic to wildfires – show how critical and essential this infrastructure is.

Dolores Green, representing the Riverside County Medical Association, emphasized that small practices play a critical role caring for patients during the pandemic and are often in the dark about their patients’ COVID-19 test results and vaccination status in our state. This contrasts with Maryland where providers get regular, comprehensive reports on their patients’ test results and vaccination status from the statewide health information exchange infrastructure. Green called for “a combination of urgency and pragmatism” as the Legislature develops policies to accelerate a health information exchange.

If crafted deliberately to support the needs of the Medi-Cal program, a statewide health information exchange strategy can also bring millions of federal dollars into the state. Other states have tapped into this funding stream, and it’s time for California to do the same. Jarrod McNaughton from Inland Empire Health Plan stressed that the CalAIM program to transform Medi-Cal will not be successful unless there is ubiquitous and seamless data sharing between health plans, health care providers and social service entities.

As Wood, a Democrat from Santa Rosa, reinforced, the need for sharing health data in California is ultimately “about the patient and improving the care they receive. … The patient is the custodian of the record. The record is not the property of the plan or the provider.”

This hearing marked a pivotal moment for health data exchange in our state. As suggested by the hearing speakers, I am excited to see health information exchange policy that:

  • Focuses on improving patient care by closing data sharing gaps.
  • Embraces urgency and pragmatism by leveraging existing statewide and regional health information exchange capacity.
  • Takes advantage of available federal funding to the greatest extent possible.

There is more consensus than ever that sharing health data across California is the right thing to do – and something we need to do right away. Thanks to Wood’s leadership, there is hope for a more connected California sometime very soon.