Why the US Department of Health Just Couldn't Ignore Blockchain

Bitcoin ransomware threats last year meant many US government agencies were wary of blockchain, but the health department took a different view.

AccessTimeIconApr 4, 2017 at 11:30 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 11, 2021 at 1:12 p.m. UTC
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A spat of bitcoin ransomware threats last year kept many US government agencies from holding public positions on blockchain.

That's according to Debbie Bucci, a lead IT architect employed by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Bucci is now helping lead one of the few agency pushes into the technology with plans to forge new partnerships with firms in the private space.

Previously, fallout over concerns about a February ransonware attack, in which a US hospital had paid $17,000 worth of bitcoin to regain access to its computers, had sealed the lips of the many government employees afraid of being negatively associated with bitcoin and pretty much anything built on a blockchain.

However, Bucci, who works at the Office of Standards and Interoperability, said she and her peers at the Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) for Health IT had been exploring blockchain and felt they shouldn't abandon their plans.

In conversation with CoinDesk earlier this month, the 15-year government veteran explained how she and a small group of like-minded colleagues were able to push through the fears holding back other agencies.

She told CoinDesk:

"We really couldn't keep our heads in the sand, because we really knew what was coming on."

Plethora of papers

To help safely navigate her agency past the concerns surrounding what ended up being a watershed year for bitcoin ransom demands, Bucci built her blockchain strategy around a little-known piece of legislation often called the 'America Competes Act'.

Formally called the Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science Act, the bill is designed to make it easier for government agencies to partner with the private sector.

Just a few months after the bitcoin ransomware attack came to the attention of the general public, Bucci and her director had helped orchestrate what ended up being the first government request  for white papers related to the industry.

The call, in July, 2016, was expected to result in 10–15 white papers, Bucci said, but instead they received 77 original submissions. And, instead of 15 submissions, the agency announced 15 winners of its own blockchain contest in August 2016.

Companies that participated include 'Big Four' accounting firm Deloitte, consulting giant Accenture and health company The Mayo Clinic.

However, the agency's most-important takeaway from the flood of papers was that there was still so much more to learn, according to Bucci. As a result, she and her colleagues set about planning what they believe was the first government-sponsored hackathon to explore blockchain.

Held in partnership with the Chamber of Digital Commerce and others at the DC Blockchain Summit, the ONC's Blockchain in Healthcare coding event attracted 68 developers broken into 10 teams, three of which competed remotely from across the US.

Announced in front of about 500 summit attendees representing a diverse set of industry leaders, the eventual winner was a group called Health Passport – a decentralized personal health record platform for sharing information with any provider or consortium in the world.

Distributed road map

Going forward, Bucci expects even more exploration of blockchain by the Department of Health, and new partnerships encouraged by the America Competes Act. That's assuming, of course, that it survives the Trump administration.

President Trump has taken an aggressive stance against more than 60 government agencies, with the HHS Health IT Office recently cited in reports as another possible target.

Looking forward, Bucci spoke of a roadmap for national interoperability, published in October, 2015, by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), which helps oversee standards for certifying health records.

Key to the plan, which is currently set to achieve national interoperability by 2024 at the latest, is a series of efforts that push for what the ONC called a "well-functioning dynamic and distributed architecture".

Although details about what exactly is that distributed architecture might entail are sparse, Bucci believes that blockchain could help meet some of the office's mandates.

She concluded:

"There’s a realization that, perhaps, to look ahead, technologies might be able to assist with some of the existing gaps that we have."

Debbie Bucci image via the Chamber of Digital Commerce 


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