Shared Information Has the Power to Change Californians’ Lives for the Better

illustration of hand lifting people through a network
Illustration: Brian Stauffer

The pandemic has shown how important it is for health care providers to be able to communicate with California’s public health system and the state’s safety-net programs. But public health emergencies aren’t the only times when we need the ability to share essential health information.

When an emergency room team has to make a split-second decision, you want them to have all the information they need to choose the right intervention to save your life. When a worker loses a job, you want them to have access to mental health services and to know they may be eligible for Medi-Cal coverage. When a parent takes a child to a pediatrician for an earache, a back-to-school vaccine, or anything else, the provider should be able to connect her family to food or other supports she needs to grow up healthy.

Although some states began building robust statewide health information networks a decade ago, California’s health information ecosystem remains largely fragmented, with public health, social service, and medical information locked in separate silos. In July, the state legislature passed AB 133, and Governor Gavin Newsom signed this historic legislation. It requires California to move forward with a statewide data exchange agreement, invites stakeholders to shape its development, and mandates that providers fully participate in the real-time exchange of treatment, payment, and health care operations information beginning in 2024.

Data Key to California’s Expansive Equity Agenda

The vision behind this new effort is simple and powerful: Our state’s government has been charged with ensuring all Californians — and the health and human service providers and organizations that care for them — have timely, secure access to the electronic information necessary to address their health and social needs.

This will be a monumental undertaking, and we need your help. To tackle this complex challenge, CHHS Secretary Mark Ghaly, MD, has convened a diverse panel of experts and stakeholders from the health, behavioral health, and social services fields — along with representatives of a dozen state departments — to collaborate on the framework’s development.

This Stakeholder Advisory Group kicked off its work on August 31. Its charge is to help CHHS by July 2022 to finalize a data-sharing agreement and common policies and procedures governing what information health care and social services organizations will share, how they will share it, and how they will ensure it is secure.

This framework will be a pillar of support to our health system’s transition to providing whole-person care that addresses social determinants of health. It will be essential to the success of the state’s expansion of integrated care in Medi-Cal, to our major new homelessness initiatives, and to dozens of programs aimed at connecting health and social services, from the Cradle-to-Career California Data System to the Master Plan for Aging.

Connecting the Dots for Better Health, Well-Being

The data exchange initiative holds special significance as California confronts health disparities and inequities laid bare by the pandemic. COVID-19 revealed hard truths about limited access to health care in many California communities, and it has exposed the inadequacy of our systems for tracking and improving health outcomes.

Nationwide, American Indian / Alaska Native, non-Hispanic people were 3.5 times more likely to be hospitalized and 2.4 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than White Americans, according to the CDC. Latinx and Black Americans were 2.8 times more likely to be hospitalized and at least twice as likely to die. Meanwhile, fully half of Californians say they believe it is harder for Black and Latinx people to get the health care they need when they are sick.

We can no longer wait to improve the way we serve our most vulnerable populations. Right now, a person enrolled in Medi-Cal with complex physical or behavioral health needs must navigate at least a half-dozen systems to receive treatment and to access food and housing. Not only do these services need to be even more focused on the people they serve, they need to be better connected.

This is the goal of the new Data Exchange Framework. In the COVID-19 era, health care providers, county agencies, and local social services partners across California are thirsty for information that will connect the dots to promote health at the individual patient and population levels.

California’s Health and Human Services Agency aims to empower them in this vital mission, and we are counting on stakeholders across the state’s health care and human services systems to come together to build it.

The unequal, devastating illness and loss of life from COVID-19 have shown us that the stakes are too high to wait.

CHCF President and CEO Sandra Hernández and Board Member Liz Gibboney serve on the Data Exchange Framework Stakeholder Advisory Group.

Visit this CHHS webpage to learn more about the data exchange framework, follow the Stakeholder Advisory Group’s progress, and contribute to this important conversation.