Groups: Health IT bill not likely to move until 2009

Policy-watchers think legislation will be acted on early in the 111th Congress, at which point healthcare reform could become a central issue.

Some stakeholders are viewing legislation introduced late Monday by House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Fortney (Pete) Stark, D-Calif. -- intended to help spur nationwide adoption of electronic medical records -- as a marker for early action in the 111th Congress rather than a vehicle that will move soon.

Comment on this article in The Forum.With less than two weeks left before lawmakers aim to adjourn, policy-watchers said today they doubt the bill could make much progress. Stark aides said they were working to schedule a markup for the legislation, which they hoped would be able to go straight to the full committee, but were realistic about how much could be done. They said Stark wants to pass health IT legislation before Congress adjourns but believes it is a long-shot. A Senate bill introduced more than a year ago by Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy and ranking member Michael Enzi has been held up by several senators citing concerns over its cost and privacy provisions.

"I don't think they'll get the [Senate bill] to move despite people saying it's a last hurrah for Kennedy," said David Roberts, vice president for government relations at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society. Kennedy, working from his home while he recuperates from brain cancer treatment, has said he plans to return to the Senate in January. "There's too much opposition now. Even if we get a House bill passed, there won't be time to conference the two," Roberts said.

But sweeping healthcare reform could be a defining issue of the new Congress, which bodes well for a technology-focused bill like Stark's and a similar measure introduced by House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders earlier this summer. Lawmakers could dive into the healthcare debate in early February after the inaugural dust settles, Roberts said. He predicted that a new version of the Kennedy-Enzi bill could emerge without its more controversial components, which would clear a path for a floor vote and an eventual conference with whatever measure passes the House.

HIMSS did not endorse the Energy and Commerce bill, and it does not plan to back Stark's bill in its current form. Roberts said that Stark's proposal to establish a federal advisory committee within HHS to make recommendations for setting health IT standards would be a step backwards from what the Bush administration has already done as part of a public-private sector panel, which had its first open meeting in March.

The bill's creation of a low-cost public IT system based on open source technology, which Stark believes would benefit healthcare providers who do not want to buy into a proprietary system, would actually create more uncertainty, Roberts added. "The marketplace has all types of solutions available," he said.

Meanwhile, Robert Zirkelbach of America's Health Insurance Plans said his group supports healthcare interoperability advancements but argued that Stark's bill -- like the Energy and Commerce version -- does not require that all entities that handle personal health records be subjected to the same federal privacy rules. But Stark's bill did get praise from the Federation of American Hospitals, the chairman-elect of the American Medical Association, and the Center for Democracy and Technology. "From a privacy advocate's standpoint, we're in a very good place," CDT's Deven McGraw said today. The National Association of Chain Drug Stores said it backs "a robust, standardized health information technology system" but opposes Stark's bill because it sees problems with its privacy provisions.