Health care reform tied to IT

The Obama administration’s drive to use $19 billion in economic stimulus law funds to implement electronic health records is closely linked to the administration’s agenda for broad health care reform, a top official said today.

Health information technology adoption and health care reform are “joined at the hip,” David Blumenthal, the national coordinator for health information technology, told reporters during a conference call. “I don’t think we can achieve the president’s vision of health care reform without 21st century technology. Health IT is a means to an end.”

Obama has pledged to reform the health care system and expand access to coverage. In his fiscal 2010 budget request to Congress in March, Obama proposed $630 billion to start comprehensive health care reform.

Blumenthal’s office at the Health and Human Services Department oversees $17 billion in incentive payments that will be distributed to doctors and hospitals that buy and use health IT systems. He also has $2 billion in money from the stimulus law that will be distributed in part as technical assistance grants to get hospitals, doctors and payers to exchange electronic patient data.

Next week, two federal health IT advisory groups will meet for the first time. The health IT policy panel will begin defining “meaningful use” that will determine eligibility for the incentive payments. The health IT standards committee will begin making recommendations for technical standards for health IT systems to ensure they provide appropriate data and can securely and reliably exchange information with other systems.

The advisory committees will assist in establishing rules for privacy, security and maintaining innovation, Blumenthal said. For example, the committees will provide advice on whether to maintain the Certification Commission for Healthcare IT as the organization that will certify whether vendors meet electronic health record standards to be set under the stimulus law, he said.

Also, after hearing from those committees, HHS hopes to provide direction on “meaningful use” by late spring or early summer, Blumenthal said.

“Meaningful use is very much on our minds," Blumenthal said. "Those words at the key to success.”

With the public facing swine flu concerns in recent weeks, Blumenthal also said there is "an enormous opportunity" to consider public health needs for data as part of the health IT adoption. Information systems that collect clinical data electronically can also be used to track diseases and population health, he said.

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