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Blumenthal Announces Early Health IT Moves

By John Reichard, CQ HealthBeat Editor

May 8, 2009 – The new appointee in charge of overseeing the federal effort to foster national adoption of health information technology announced Friday the names of new advisers to help guide the effort and a timetable for some of its early moves in the field.

David Blumenthal, recently appointed by President Obama as the new National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, told reporters in a telephone briefing Friday that he expects to get recommendations from the advisers in early summer on how to define "meaningful use" of health information technology, a step needed to issue a regulation determining whether doctors qualify for higher Medicare payments if they employ health information technology in their medical practices.

"Those two words are the key to success in health information technology policy over the next several years," Blumenthal said.

David Brailer, who held the coordinator's post in the Bush administration, said recently that one of the biggest jobs Blumenthal faces is figuring out what constitutes meaningful use. The term has to be defined and a way to measure it has to be developed through extended rulemaking likely to generate 7,000 to 12,000 comments, Brailer predicted. All of that has to be done in time for fiscal 2011, which begins 17 months from now.

Obama has made health IT the centerpiece of his early efforts to lower health care costs, obtaining billions in funding through economic stimulus legislation to fuel the spread of the technology. The legislation provides for net additional federal spending of $19 billion for health information technology, including $2 billion in discretionary funds and $17 billion for investments and incentives offered through the Medicare and Medicaid programs to help increase the use of the technology in hospitals, doctors' offices and other medical facilities.

Blumenthal announced appointments to two advisory committees created under the stimulus legislation. One is the Health Information Technology Policy Committee, which will recommend policies for developing national "infrastructure" for exchanging health information in systems that are "interoperable" and "talk" to each other. The committee will also advise on "standards for the secure and private exchange of patient medical information," HHS said in a news release announcing the names of the new appointees.

HHS appointees to the committee are Blumenthal; Michael J. Klag, the dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; and Deven C. McGraw, director of the Health Privacy Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology. Another 17 members were appointed by the Acting Comptroller General of the United States and by House and Senate leaders. Its first meeting is set for May 11.

The second is the HIT Standards Committee, which will make recommendations to Blumenthal on certification criteria for IT systems and the use of health information. Its first meeting is scheduled for May 15. HHS announced 23 appointees to that committee.

"The certification process is under review," said Blumenthal when asked about the future role of "CCHIT," the Certification Commission for Health Information Technology, which has overseen certification efforts thus far. "There was a complicated committee structure in the past," he said, calling the decision by Congress to create the two new committees "a wise one." Blumenthal said he doesn't see the two new committees as duplicative of previous advisory panels, describing the new committees as having a broad policy role.

Blumenthal also said he expects to announce in late spring or early summer the details of a $2 billion grant program to help develop a health IT workforce, to foster use of health IT to improve public health activities such as disease monitoring and tracking of pharmaceutical side effects, and "geographic exchange" of data across organizations and offices of individual doctors. Blumenthal also said his office is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to get answers on possible health IT use of added flu prevention money in an upcoming supplemental spending bill to counter the H1N1 outbreak.

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