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Health Care IT Legislation Must Overcome Privacy Concerns

With the number of days remaining in the congressional session dwindling, supporters are urging faster action. They tout health IT as a way to improve care and reduce costs.

June 13, 2008
Advocates for establishing a national health care information technology network had hoped to attend a Rose Garden bill signing this summer.

Instead, legislation that would promote electronic medical records and other uses of IT at hospitals and doctor’s offices must overcome privacy concerns raised by members of Congress and interest groups.

In the House, ideas from a number of health IT bills have been melded into “discussion draft” legislation in the Energy and Commerce Committee. In the Senate, a bill has been approved by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee but is being amended in further negotiations.

Although it could speed up at any moment, final health IT legislation is some distance from the finish line. With the number of days remaining in the congressional session dwindling, supporters are urging faster action. They tout health IT as a way to improve care and reduce costs.

“America can’t afford coverage for all, if we don’t have health IT,” said former Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Connecticut, who is co-chair of the Health IT Now Coalition. “We must push the ball over the line this session or we will pay dearly.”

The Senate bill and the draft House measure would make permanent the Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology within the Department of Health and Human Services.

Originally created by a presidential executive order, the office would guide the development and adoption of health IT. In the Senate bill, a public-private partnership would make recommendations to HHS on interoperability and voluntary standards. The House bill would establish federal advisory committees.

Both bills include funding mechanisms to help health care providers purchase health IT.

The House bill contains stronger privacy protections, although the Senate bill was modified in early June to bolster its privacy provisions.

Under the House bill, a patient would have the right to know when his or her medical information has been compromised. Businesses that work with health care providers would be penalized for improper use of records.

A House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in early June focused exclusively on privacy, with watchdogs calling for patient control of their medical history.

While legislative details are negotiated, corporate officials and experts assert that it is essential to move beyond handwritten medical records and enhance communication between patients, providers and insurers.

Health IT would make health data more transparent and improve standards of care and disease management, according to Felicia Fields, group vice president for human resource and corporate services at Ford Motor Co.

“It allows us to be more patient-centric than organization-centric in how we provide care,” Fields said in an interview after an early-June Senate Finance Committee hearing on health care reform.

Although witnesses acknowledged that IT is not a panacea for what ails U.S. health care, they argued that it is an important part of the prescription.

“It’s hard for me to imagine how we make significant progress if we don’t introduce computers into the delivery of health care,” said Elizabeth McGlynn, a health expert at Rand, a research organization.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.