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Health Care Experts Stress Importance of Investing in Health IT

By Leah Nylen, CQ Staff

February 13, 2008 -- Investing in health information technology will improve the overall quality of health care and reduce medical errors and costs, health care experts told the Senate Budget Committee on Thursday.

"Health IT alone adds little to no value, and if developed in isolation from other critical reforms is likely to be . . . the next festival of waste," said Laura Adams, the president of the Rhode Island Quality Institute, a non-profit organization composed of health care professionals, insurance companies, and business leaders. "Health IT undergirds virtually every major health care reform initiative being advanced today."

Health IT includes electronic prescribing, paperless record keeping and billing, and integrated communication of health information between insurers and health providers. It has been a longtime priority for President Bush, and Congress has tried several times in recent years to pass more sweeping legislation. But those attempts have faltered amid concerns about patient privacy and the lack of a single standard for electronic record keeping.

Supporters of health IT hope to have more success in this Congress because of the growing interest in health care overhaul. Several senators have advocated for greater funding for health IT projects, including Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who helped establish the Rhode Island Quality Institute in 2001 when he was the state's attorney general.

Budget Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., emphasized that health IT programs could help reduce the rising costs of health care.

"About one in every seven dollars in this economy is going to health care. . . . If we stay on this trend line, [health care costs] will grow from 16 percent of gross domestic product to more than 37 percent by 2050. Clearly we must make changes," Conrad said. "If we are going to address rising health care costs, we need to get started on some of these reforms."

One of the primary impediments to health IT is the lack of a national strategic plan for adoption and standardization, said Valerie C. Melvin, director of human capital and management information systems issue for the Government Accountability Office.

"Such a national strategy is essential," Melvin told the panel. "Until [the Department of Health and Human Services] develops a national strategy, it is difficult to effectively monitor progress toward achieving national goals for health IT."

Mary Grealy, president of the Healthcare Leadership Council, a non-profit comprised of health care executives, also emphasized the need for national standards to insure interoperability.

"Developing a multi-state, interoperable system depends on national technical standards as well as national uniform standards for confidentiality and security," Grealy said. Without interoperability standards that would allow electronic records to be moved between states, hospitals, and doctors, health IT would be significantly hampered, she said.

Whitehouse echoed the panel's assessment, emphasizing what he called the "siloization" of the industry that has kept health care providers from investing in health IT.

Providers and hospitals focus on their own 'silos,' or individual financial interests and problems, rather than the health care system as a whole, Whitehouse said. Companies are reluctant to buy in to health IT programs because it could be up to a decade before the investment produces any savings.

Members of the panel said they support legislation currently before the Senate, S 1693, which would promote the adoption of a nationwide interoperable health IT system.

The bill is sponsored by Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and ranking Republican Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming.

The Kennedy-Enzi bill would authorize a total of $278 million in fiscal years 2008 and 2009 for competitive matching grants to regional and local health IT networks.

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