Web-based health insurance portals get Senate committee nod

Legislation would set up Web exchanges, offers incentives

The Senate Finance Committee has approved a health care reform bill that includes several health information technology provisions: It would create Web-based health insurance exchanges, create incentives for electronic health records (EHRs) and increase the use of quality measures, which typically require aggregate data.

The Web portals “would make purchasing health insurance coverage easier and more understandable by using the Internet to give consumers information about available plans,” the committee said after approving the bill Oct.13.

The Web-based portals would offer standardized enrollment applications, standard forms to compare coverage from various plans, and a call center for customer support. The portals would also allow consumers to find out if they are eligible for tax credits or subsidies to reduce the cost of their coverage. Small firms would have access to Small Business Health Options Program exchanges, also Web portals, that would make it easier to purchase and compare coverage for their employees.

The goal with the Web portals is to increase competition and availability of plans in the marketplace, the committee said. Currently, insurers operate under a patchwork of state laws, so the idea is to standardize the rules so that more insurers can compete in more states.

The measure also would create incentives for health care providers to use EHRs. Also, the legislation would continue to make available financial incentives to doctors' offices and hospitals that buy certified EHR systems, the program started under the economic stimulus law, according to Bartlett Cleland, senior policy director with TechAmerica, a trade organization that represents IT companies.

“There are additional incentives [in the bill] for electronic health records,” Cleland said today. The bill takes some of the economic stimulus law incentives and “makes them permanent,” he said.

The bill also would give bonus payments to Medicare Advantage providers based on their performance of on quality measures and the operation of evidence-based care management plans. Typically, IT systems are needed to aggregate data on such measures.

There also is a provision to implement delivery system reforms, including value-based purchasing, which also involves IT systems.

The Obama administration earlier this year put at least $19 billion in incentives for EHR programs in the economic stimulus law. Advocates for health IT have been urging Congress to include EHR provisions in the health care reform package.

The major provisions of the bill would expand the availability of insurance coverage by requiring individuals to buy insurance; enlarge Medicaid; provide subsidies to families to buy insurance; and prohibit insurers from withholding coverage to individuals with pre-existing problems.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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