'Wired' bill fails to win quick Senate passage

The Senate turned back two attempts this month to pass the major health IT bill pending there, and now sponsors are expected to modify the bill in hopes of forestalling future objections to it.

The effort to win unanimous consent for passage of the Wired for Health Care Quality Act may represent the bill’s best chance this year, because full debate and voting are unlikely to win a spot on the crowded Senate calendar, according to David Roberts, vice president for government relations at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society.

The Senate is taking its Thanksgiving break and is expected to work for only two or three more weeks in 2007.

A letter from the American Medical Association objecting to portions of the bill was among the reasons it did not pass, along with vigorous lobbying from the Coalition for Patient Privacy. The coalition, led by the Patient Privacy Rights organization, includes nearly four dozen other organizations.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who has sponsored separate health information privacy legislation, is reportedly seeking to strengthen the privacy language in the Wired for Health Care Quality bill.

The AMA letter, co-signed by 35 other medical societies, raised five major concerns. They related to the quality measures called for in the bill, the processes for developing health care quality measures and IT standards, privacy protections and the level of subsidies for doctors.

The bill “allows the Secretary of [Health and Human Services] too much discretion to develop health care quality measures,” the AMA letter stated. “…The Secretary and the federal government are not equipped to unilaterally mandate the practice of medicine.”

The bill also would establish in law the Office of the National Coordinator of Health IT and the American Health Information Community, establish a new public/private Partnership for Health Care Improvement, authorize grants for health IT implementation, and extend federal privacy protections to health information databases.

“We question whether the appropriations authorized by this bill will meet the needs of physicians and adequately fund three national grant programs that affect so many stakeholders,” the AMA letter stated.

A Congressional Budget Office analysis said the bill calls for $141 million a year for the three grant programs, which would benefit health care providers, states and regional health information exchanges. Matching contributions would be required of the recipients.

About the Author

Nancy Ferris is senior editor of Government Health IT.

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