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HELP Panel Approves Health Information Technology Grant and Loan Programs

By Colby Itkowitz, CQ Staff

June 27, 2007 -- A Senate panel approved by voice vote a bill that would create grant and loan programs to help health care providers buy and adopt new information technology products.

The bill (S 1693) would require government purchases of health IT to meet basic standards on information exchange. A panel of government and private-sector stakeholders would set the standards.

Both the Senate and House passed similar bills in the 109th Congress, but a conference never was scheduled to work out differences.

Th Senate 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. The regional networks are designed to unite insurers, doctors, hospitals and other health care providers into a single IT network that can share information. The grants would be available for five years.

Eager to wrap up the meeting before a floor vote on immigration legislation, Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, urged members to reserve amendments for the floor.

"We have a responsibility to make the miracles of modern medicine available to every American," Kennedy said in a statement when the bill was introduced. "However, in our health care system, medical errors are all too common and coordination of care is often poor."

According to the statement, the federal government estimates the nation could save $140 billion each year from better IT use. Those savings could cut the cost of a family's health insurance by over $700 a year, it says.

"Health IT is about bringing safety and efficiency to our health care system," said Bill Novelli, chief executive officer of AARP, which supports the bill. "People seeking treatment have enough to worry about; if we can alleviate the fear that an error will occur, we need to try to do that."

Privacy advocates are concerned that digitizing health records would leave patients open to privacy violations and identity theft. The legislation would bring health IT databases under the protections of existing patient privacy law (PL 104-191).

The committee approved without objection a manager's package that included a provision to preserve an individual's ability to control the acquisition, uses and disclosure of individually identifiable information.

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