Two New Senate Proposals Show Momentum For Health-Care IT

Proposals try to chip away obstacles to use of IT in health care, from the cost to anti-kickback laws that keep hospitals from giving IT to doctors
Support for the nationwide adoption of health IT received a couple of Congressional boosts with two bi-partisan bills introduced last week, one by Sens. Mike Enzi (R-Wy.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), and one by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Max Baucus (D-Mt).

The Enzi-Kennedy "Better Healthcare Through Information Technology Act of 2005" and the Grassely-Baucus "Medicare Value Purchasing Act" are the newest of several bipartisan bills introduced this year by members of Congress.

Others include a bill co-sponsored by Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) unveiled earlier in June, and a bill introduced in May by Reps. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) and Patrick Kennedy (D-RI).

Among the Enzi-Kennedy bill's proposals are: putting nto law a new proposed private-public entity, the American Health Information Collaborative, to identify uniform national data standards; ensuring that strong protections for privacy and security are a central element of these standards; and requiring that all federal IT purchases conform to those standards.

The legislation also codifies the position of National Coordinator For Health IT, a sub-cabinet post created last year by President Bush through an executive order. That post is held by Dr. David Brailer.

The Enzi-Kennedy bill also creates financial assistance and grants for health-care providers to deploy health IT, and allows states to offer low-interest loans for health-care providers to acquire health IT systems.

The bill also creates targeted and limited safe harbor to the Stark and anti-Kickback Acts to facilitate investments in health IT. Currently, because of anti-kickback regulations, large hospital systems that want to give health IT systems to providers such as physician, are inhibited from doing so for fear of breaking those laws.

Meanwhile, the Grassley-Baucus bill focuses on creating financial incentives for investments in IT by health-care providers who participate in the federal government's Medicare program. That new bill proposes tax incentives and higher Medicare reimbursements for hospitals and providers who deploy IT that can reduce costs and improve patient quality of care.

Washington, D.C. was a busy place for promoting health IT last week. In addition introduction of the two senate bills, the Subcommittee on Technology, Innovation, and Competitiveness of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, held a hearing on health IT.

McKesson Provider Technologies President Pamela Pure was among a number of health care and technology executives who testified about the need for Congress to support widespread adoption of health IT. Pure spoke about how bedside bar-code scanning, electronic prescriptions, and secure Web-based access to patient information for authorized clinicians can help reduce medical mistakes.

"Technology is not the inhibitor of change; it is available and working today," said Pure. "It is intolerable that people die every day from medication errors that could be prevented with bar-code technology, a technology that's used in every major retail outlet in this country. However, less than 20 percent of hospitals use bar codes to verify the administration of patient medications."

Researchers at the Institute of Medicine estimate that between 45,000 and 98,000 Americans die each due to hospital mistakes that could've been prevented by health-care IT, like computerized physician order entry systems and electronic health records. Government researchers also estimate that widespread health IT adoption could reduce costs as much as $140 billion annually through improving efficiencies and reducing waste, such as duplicated lab and other medical tests often ordered by physicians who don't have access to their patients' paper-based records.

For the average American family, this could translate to about $700 annual savings related to health insurance costs, according to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. America currently spends about $1.7 trillions annually on health care, according to government researchers.

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