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Leavitt Hammers Away on IT Plan

JUNE 8, 2005 -- Will Michael Leavitt's signature achievement as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services prove to be advancing adoption of health care information technology? Introduced at a Washington forum by medical information technology expert Brent James as "a techno-geek" and a hard worker with visionary plans for IT, Leavitt delivered another impassioned speech Wednesday advancing proposals unveiled earlier in the week to spur public and private sector collaboration in the field.

While Leavitt plays down his computer skills, noting that his recent attempts to change hardware in his laptop shut down his e-mail, the subject clearly captures his imagination. "This is a very big deal," Leavitt told the conference sponsored by the Agency for Healthcare Policy and Research. "It will affect every American."

Leavitt linked IT's power to cut health costs with the nation's continued ability to excel in the global economy. "We have learned to make machines work together. The question is whether we can make people work together," he said, referring to the importance of ensuring that doctors and hospitals actually use information technology.

Older ways of delivering care will have to be retooled, he said, adding, "There's no question that all of us will have to change." But Americans are up to challenge, he said. "This is the United States of America. I say we lead. I say we prosper."

Leavitt's personal interest in the field led him to take the job of chairman of the new advisory panel he announced Monday, the American Health Information Community (AHIC). And while Leavitt emphasized that it would be a mistake for government to take over the job of setting standards to ensure that various types of information technology are compatible, AHIC's work to foster adoption of interoperability standards will have a big impact. The panel will have 17 members, including representatives of the physician and hospital community, the insurance industry and federal agencies including Medicare, Medicaid, the Indian Health Service, and the Food and Drug Administration.

Leavitt also said that once interoperability standards coming out of AHIC are final—some could be ready within a year—the federal government will use them in its health programs. And he added that the "vast majority" of big private insurers are likely to do so as well.

The panel would produce "early deliverables"—for example, standards relating to prescription drug data, laboratory results, and computer systems that would track the emergence of a flu pandemic or a bioterror attack.

Leavitt said he knows standards aren't the whole story, suggesting that small health care practitioners might be able to get IT donations from insurers or hospitals if the "Stark law" is loosened. That legislation aims to prevent financial inducements to refer patients or order tests and services. Leavitt said he believes the administration has regulatory authority to more narrowly define the reach of the law, to foster not only electronic prescribing but also the adoption of other types of information technology.

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