Federal health plans to offer Blue Button digital health-record access

Wednesday - 1/18/2012, 8:07pm EST

All health insurance options in federal health plans will soon allow members to download a digital version of their health records using a technology called Blue Button, the Office of Personnel Management announced.

Most plans in the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan already offer a personal-health-record option. However, the Blue Button technology, whose use was spearheaded by the Veterans Affairs Department, will make it easer to share digital records with family members and physicians.

"Blue Button is about patient-centered care. It is a very simple file that can be securely downloaded to any computer or smartphone without special software." -- VA Chief Technology Officer Peter Levin

"Adding Blue Button will make these records more readable, more accessible and more useful to patients and families," said OPM Director John Berry, in a release. "This easy access to lab results, medication and problem lists, allergies, appointment data and wellness reminders makes care both easier and better."

The Blue Button technology allows users to download medical records into a simple text file by clicking a recognizable blue icon from a secure website.

It has already been rolled out to about 500,000 veterans, current servicemembers, and Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.

'Significant progress' on health IT

In a Dec. 19 letter to health-insurance providers in the federal plan, OPM requested the companies add the ability to download health records using Blue Button.

The most basic form of the tool only collects data that patients themselves enter. However, OPM said companies should consider including other data, such as medications, lab results and appointment times, that they already collect in their databases.

An OPM report released in September found that FEHB plans had made "significant progress" in using health information technology and in offering options for personal health records since a similar 2010 report.

As of September, 97 percent of the plans made available to their members personal health records, which track medical claims, lab results and medication history, for example.

From paper to digital

"We want federal employees, their families — and the general public — to benefit from easy access to Blue Button downloads as it rapidly scales to become a routine service in the care delivery system," said Aneesh Chopra, the federal chief technology officer. Chopra has been a leading voice in the administration for health IT.

Since being adopted by VA, Blue Button has also made inroads into the private-sector. Some in private industry view wider adoption of Blue Button adoption as a way to encourage providers to finally make the switch from paper-based records to digital.

The adoption of health IT has been a keystone program of the Health and Human Services Department under the Obama administration.

The 2009 Recovery Act provided millions of dollars in incentive payments for "meaningful use" of electronic health records by doctors and hospitals

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