Health IT could get boost in Fed health plan

Senate committee approves health IT plan

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Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.) plans to introduce a bill that would expand the implementation of health IT within the Federal Employee Health Benefits (FEHB) Program, the nation’s largest health plan.

Porter said yesterday that he will meet with employee organizations, insurance companies and health care providers in September to get their advice about the bill he is drafting. He did not describe the bill’s provisions, but he said he did not expect them to increase the FEHB premiums that plan participants pay.

It should reduce the cost burden for participants, said Porter, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's Federal Workforce and Agency Organization Subcommittee.

At a subcommittee hearing yesterday, he thanked Office of Personnel Management Director Linda Springer for her agency’s work so far to get FEHB to use health IT. The program provides health benefits to 8 million federal employees, retirees and dependents.

Springer said this year’s annual “call letter” from OPM to health insurance plans, inviting them to propose benefit levels and rates for the coming year, “strongly encouraged plans to take steps to improve their health information technology.”

The letter asks plans to describe their health IT initiatives, she said. It asks specifically about prescribing medications online and any health IT-related contract provisions in the plans’ agreements with hospitals, she added.

OPM is now reviewing those responses “to establish a baseline from which we can measure progress” on health IT, Springer said. “Currently none of the FEHB plans have entirely electronic-based information systems.”

Dr. Harvey Fineberg, who heads the Institute of Medicine, told the subcommittee that the current climate is rife with opportunities for the FEHB to provide models and test beds for health IT applications. He listed four ways the program could advance the implementation of health IT:

• Favor health plans and providers that use electronic health records consistent with national standards.

• Encourage investment in health IT and training of health professionals in clinical IT.

• Provide incentives for using IT to collect data on the quality of care and for achieving improvements in quality.

• Evaluate the economics of different approaches to using health IT.

“If anyone can afford to be the model, it’s the FEHB,” said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). But she expressed concern that federal employees would end up footing the bill.

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