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Group Seeks to Achieve Federal Health IT Legislation

June 5, 2007

Several large coalitions of special interest organizations and businesses have formed in recent months to promote universal coverage and other major changes to the U.S. health care system.

The latest group jumped into the fray on Tuesday, June 5, with a much more modest goal—persuading Congress to pass legislation that would facilitate the use of information technology in health care.

The initiative—called Health IT Now!—consists of 22 members, including Verizon, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and a variety of health care organizations.

Led by the National Association of Manufacturers, it is calling for federal legislation that would establish standards for interoperability, provide government grants to help doctors and hospitals adopt health information technology, encourage patients to use electronic health records, and set up a federal-state process to address privacy and security.

Privacy concerns have sunk legislation in the past. In November 2005, the Senate passed a $652 million health IT bill by unanimous consent. The House passed its own version in 2006, but the two measures were never reconciled because of disagreements about privacy regulations.

Shortly after the June 5 Capitol Hill press conference, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts and chairman of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, announced he and a bipartisan group of senators would soon introduce a bill that would help health providers overcome financial and technical barriers to implementing health information technology.

One of the obstacles in the current session of Congress is that the Democratic majority has approved so-called pay-as-you-go rules for legislation. Any spending on health IT would have to be offset by cuts in the federal budget or by tax increases.

But former Sen. John Breaux, D-Louisiana and co-chair of the coalition, urged his former Capitol Hill colleagues to take action.

“Congress is going to have to find the money to provide the grants to get this started,” he said at the press conference. “The privacy issues can and will be solved.”

Proponents assert that deploying advanced technology to handle medical records and other administrative tasks would reduce health care costs, improve quality and ultimately save lives.

“This is an area where there should be no disagreement,” Breaux said. “It should be a win-win for everybody. It doesn’t have to be part of a bigger [health care] package.”

Verizon’s enthusiasm for the idea centers on its need to finance health care for 238,000 employees and about 200,000 retirees and their dependents. The company provides coverage for about 900,000 people total at an annual cost of $3.5 billion.

The company wants to lower its costs and improve health care for its employees, according to Peter Davidson, Verizon’s senior vice president for federal government relations.

“We think health IT is the best way to do that,” he says. “It’s like a low-hanging fruit.”

The company’s leadership on the issue was spurred by chairman and CEO Ivan Seidenberg, who served on a national commission a couple years ago that issued recommendations on health technology interoperability.

“Consumers should be driving the health care business, much as they [do] the cellular industry,” says Andy Mekelburg, Verizon’s vice president of federal government relations.

Before it puts them in a position to change the health care industry, people would first notice increased health technology in the waiting room. Instead of filling out forms about their medical history, their background would be stored electronically and be accessible to nurses and doctors.

But the impact could be more powerful.

At the press conference, Jennifer Queen related the story of her daughter, Courtney, a 10-year-old suffering from DiGeorge syndrome, which undermines several of her body’s systems. She has been hospitalized 24 times and has undergone 400 medical procedures. During one episode, doctors were delayed for hours as the hospital compiled mounds of health records and transported them in a wheelchair to the floor where Courtney was being treated.

“From a parent’s perspective, that can be extremely frustrating” and terrifying, Jennifer Queen said.

Although the latest medical technology is available in the intensive care unit when Courtney Queen is treated, that’s not the scene elsewhere in the health industry, asserts John Engler, NAM president.

“In the physician’s office, we’re stuck on paper,” he said. “Reams and reams and reams of paper—17th century technology.”

Engler also argues that improving health IT can address broader health care questions by providing a tool for rigorously assessing chronic care and disease management.

For now, Verizon is circumspect in the wider health care dialogue. It has not yet signed up with any coalitions that are advocating universal care. But, according to Mekelburg, it is talking with the group Better Health Care Together, which is led by Wal-Mart and the Service Employees International Union.

“No one’s come up with the right answers yet,” he says. “We don’t want solutions to increase [health care] costs. Solutions have to decrease the costs.”

—Mark Schoeff Jr.