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HHS Chief Says She'll Work with Senate on E-Health Problems

By Melissa Attias, CQ Roll Call

April 23, 2015 -- The chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee has secured a commitment from Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell to work to address problems with electronic health records.

At a Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., expressed concern about the amount of federal funding spent subsidizing the shift from paper to electronic records while doctors continue to resist, even in the face of penalties for non-participation, and express dissatisfaction with the systems. Alexander and Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the HELP panel, have formed a bipartisan working group to identify five or six problems with electronic health records that can be addressed administratively or legislatively.

"What I'd like to do is to move up toward the top of our—your list and our list—doing something about electronic health records," Alexander told Burwell.

Asked if she would work with senators to identify those issues, Burwell agreed and said she has a staff working group ready. Electronic health records touch everything from opioid abuse to precision medicine to delivery system changes, she noted.

Electronic records make it easier for medical providers to track whether they are providing the services patients need and meeting guidelines put forward by federal health officials.

"Where everything is going in terms of our ability to serve the consumer, the patient, in the way we need to, this is a core part," she said, adding that she looks forward to putting the list together and getting it accomplished.

Alexander said there's great interest in the issue within his committee, naming Louisiana Republican Bill Cassidy in particular. The chairman said he's already met with Andy Slavitt, acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and plans to meet with Karen DeSalvo, national coordinator for health information technology.

Senators quizzed Burwell about a variety of issues at a recent hearing on the Health and Human Services Department's fiscal 2016 budget request, including pending regulations to extend the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) authority to electronic cigarettes and other unregulated tobacco products.

Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley asked if the rule proposed last April has moved from FDA to the Office of Management and Budget for review. Burwell said HHS is still going through comments and it hasn't moved to the Office of Management and Budget.

"It's our hope that over the summer, that at some point this summer, we will get to a final stage," she said.

On the issue of opioid abuse, Burwell suggested that the department may request legislation related to training guidelines on prescribing opioids.

"Even if we put the guidelines out, the questions of whether or not those existing physicians and even those coming through will be trained in these mechanisms and trained in these guidelines is a question that I think is an extremely important one," she said. "How that and where that occurs may be a conversation that we need to continue."

Subcommittee Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo., asked if the department needs more authorizing language or funding.

"It's not just money," Burwell responded. "It is other questions about how people are willing to implement the guidelines and make sure that people are trained."

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