Broad coalition pushes for quick action on health IT

Health organizations, drug manufacturers and IT vendors to send letter to members of Congress.

With Congress looking to wrap up its legislative year, industry and nonprofit groups that have pushed for passage of legislation to create a nationwide system of electronic health records are turning up the heat on Capitol Hill.

Comment on this article in The Forum.More than 175 stakeholders, including the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, AstraZeneca, Cisco Systems, and Pfizer will send a letter to members of the House and Senate today hoping to spur action.

"Our organizations all share the downstream effects of our inefficient healthcare system, particularly rising healthcare costs," states the letter from the Health IT Now Coalition, which will be unveiled at a morning briefing.

The signatories, who believe technology can improve quality of and access to patient care and reduce medical errors and costs, warn against waiting for "the uncertainty of the priorities of a new administration" to move legislation they say has wide bipartisan support.

Bills pending in both chambers have won the group's endorsement but have rankled privacy advocates. Broadly, those measures would create a public-private process to determine standards for interoperability, product certification, quality measures and an accelerated process for standards improvement and would provide financial incentives for healthcare providers to adopt and use health IT. The bills include text to encourage patient and provider education, as well as privacy and security protections.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy and ranking member Michael Enzi introduced a bill more than a year ago and it was hotlined before the August recess. The threat of holds by several members delayed voting on the measure.

In the House, a bill by Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell and ranking member Joe Barton is awaiting floor action, while Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Fortney (Pete) Stark, D-Calif., is working on a proposal that would use Medicare reimbursement as an incentive for healthcare providers.

Stark is expected to introduce his bill this week, Health IT Now Executive Director Joel White said Monday, citing the "great desire" by Stark and Health Subcommittee ranking member Dave Camp, R-Mich., to move ahead with legislation.

White said Medicare language might be tricky to navigate. Such a proposal is "helpful as a financing mechanism but from a processing standpoint has not been examined" by provider groups, he said. "Congress needs to focus on things that they know they can get done," White said. "Medicare will be an issue again next year."

Critics like Deborah Peel of the Patient Privacy Rights believe existing language is not strong enough to thwart improper use of medical records and guard against potential security breaches.

Meanwhile, America's Health Insurance Plans, an industry lobbying group, has criticized the bills in play, arguing they could impede the ability of providers to offer wellness programs, disease management, quality assurance and other important functions.

Former Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., who is co-chair of Health IT Now, said legislative success in the 110th Congress has "a 50-50 shot... because the hurdles are high and it's easy for Congress to get bogged down in the ancillary [issues]."