Panel weighs challenges of adopting health IT overhaul

Kaiser Permanente CEO warns electronic medical records alone are not sufficient to provide optimal care.

The top executive of the nation's largest private healthcare provider told the Senate Finance Committee today that the country's health system needs a high-tech overhaul to create "critical linkages" between clinicians and guarantee consistent care for patients.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Kaiser Permanente CEO George Halvorson's testimony came as several legislative proposals intended to create a national system of electronic medical records are moving through Congress. Achieving such an overhaul would be daunting, and electronic medical records alone are not sufficient to provide optimal care, Halvorson said.

He called for a special support system that would analyze data from interconnected networks and give physicians prompts to support consistent care delivery and a stand-alone care registry for those Americans who will not have immediate access to integrated health IT. Once a fully computer-supported system is in place, the nation should aim to reduce asthma, congestive heart failure and kidney failure by 50 percent, he said.

Finance Chairman Max Baucus expressed caution, pointing out that the healthcare industry has been slow to adopt electronic systems due to cost, lack of return on investment and difficulty of implementation. Such innovation would support healthcare delivery, but experts disagree on the benefits, especially with respect to generating savings in the healthcare system, he said.

CBO Director Peter Orszag also spoke before the panel, noting that two healthcare reports are due out in December that could provide some answers. One will score numerous policy options offered in this Congress, while the other will address proposals to make major changes to the health insurance and healthcare systems.

One suggestion -- offering federal subsidies to practitioners who agree to adopt health IT -- would benefit only those on the verge of innovating but not providers who are furthest behind, he said.

Orszag said he believes that withholding Medicare reimbursement for those who do not implement electronic systems would spur widespread health IT adoption in the next five to 10 years.

Sen. John (Jay) Rockefeller, D-W.Va., offered a modified approach that he called "too radical to pass," in which health IT adoption would be a precondition for taking both Medicare and Medicaid. "If we are serious about getting to nearly universal health IT adoption, I don't see a practical alternative to the kind of approach you're mentioning," Orszag responded.