Marchibroda: Congress on the move

The recent spate of congressional activity in health information technology bodes well for the future of health care.

Never mind the dog days of August. As the summer session of Congress winds down, the interest in health information technology is warming up, with an increasing number of bills related to driving improvements in healthcare safety, quality and efficiency. We are in very exciting and promising times, humming with fevered debate and earnest federal efforts to make progress on such legislation.

On July 21, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee approved the Wired for Healthcare Quality Act of 2005 (S. 1418), jointly co-sponsored by Sens. Michael Enzi (R-WY), Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, MD (R-TN). This legislation, with notable bi-partisan support, now awaits Senate floor action when Congress returns in September.

The House Ways and Means Committee, meanwhile, has introduced a bill focused on Medicare value purchasing and will likely introduce legislation focused specifically on HIT and improved health care after the August recess. The House Ways and Means Medicare value-purchasing bill, an effort at physician payment reform, would establish new quality and efficiency measures to gauge physician performance in the areas of process, structure and outcomes.

Officials of the Bush administration, in particular, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Mike Leavitt, continue to speak out and exert critical leadership on quality of care and HIT issues. In his testimony to the Senate Budget Committee on July 20, Secretary Leavitt cited realigning health care incentives, the EHR adoption gap and interoperability as key challenges in the American healthcare system. Significantly, Leavitt is quoted as saying:

“Health information technology is a tool which holds promise for improving the quality of care Americans receive by preventing medical errors, providing clinicians with better clinical decision-making tools, sharing information with other clinicians involved with the treatment of their patients, tracking health outcomes and coordinating public health activities. While improving the quality of care is important, health information technology can also lead to cost savings, through better coordination of care, information sharing, reducing redundancies and preventing errors…there has been great progress in the past year, and I am optimistic about the future of health IT. However, there is much work to be done and we have to work to address real issues and barriers that will halt the remarkable progress that is being made.”

Leavitt will be instrumental in forging improvements as the leader of the 17-member American Health Information Community (AHIC) which, will be tasked with helping the nation transition to electronic health records, including common standards and interoperability, in a smooth, open, inclusive and market-led way. Nominations for AHIC are due by August 5.

Action particularly on HIT and quality of care legislation will still be hot when Washington gets down to business in September. We are hopeful that needed changes will emerge and be implemented. Stay tuned.

Janet M. Marchibroda is chief executive officer of the eHealth Initiative and executive director of the eHealth Initiative Foundation. She can be reached at janet.marchibroda@ehealthinitiative.org.

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