High-tech industry eyes health IT bill as 'big hurrah'

House measure seen as most viable vehicle to achieve a nationwide system of electronic medical records.

Legislation to create a nationwide system of electronic medical records could be the high-tech sector's golden goose in the 110th Congress, policy watchers told CongressDaily today.

Comment on this article in The Forum.The sector's other priorities on tax, trade and immigration all advanced early in the session, but as momentum on those fronts waned, attention to health information technology has increased.

The House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee Wednesday held a hearing on a draft health IT measure, with testimony from executives from Cisco, Verizon, privacy watchdogs, and representatives from the healthcare field. The proposal, circulated by House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell and ranking member Joe Barton, incorporates language from earlier bills and is seen as the most viable vehicle going forward, lobbyists said. It also has support of Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and ranking member Nathan Deal, R-Ga.

The proposal would direct HHS to set standards for an electronic information exchange and create incentives to spur physician adoption of health IT. It also includes information breach notification language and would close a gap in existing privacy law that lets physicians use patient records for marketing purposes.

A bill introduced by Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy and ranking member Michael Enzi passed their committee last fall, and patient privacy concerns raised by Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy have been largely ironed out. However, Leahy has expressed interest in holding a hearing on health privacy, and with Kennedy recovering from brain surgery, it is unclear how long he will be gone.

"Kennedy has been such an important leader on that bill. I think they'll continue to take his lead," said Deven McGraw, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology's Health Privacy Project. Lobbyists for the Information Technology Industry Council, which represents Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and others said they believe that a deal can be sealed for swift Senate passage upon Kennedy's return.

McGraw, who testified at the House Energy and Commerce hearing, said "everyone is more optimistic now than they were about a month ago" when the Senate bill was stuck and the Dingell proposal did not exist. The House draft has its own obstacles, she noted, including unease about patient privacy and possible Republican opposition to congressional intervention in a field they see as more amendable to a free-market solution.

She added that House Energy and Commerce Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee Chairman Edward Markey, D-Mass., might try to add language from legislation he introduced in February with House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, and noted there are remnants of a bill sponsored by Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Mike Rogers, R-Mich., that did not make it into the Dingell draft.

Eshoo and Rogers "pushed the envelope and we wouldn't be where we are without their leadership," ITI Government Relations Director Kara Calvert said, but added the version being worked on by Energy and Commerce leaders in consultation with industry stakeholders could get the attention of the entire House.

"This may be our big hurrah," she said.