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Health IT bill advances in House subcommittee

The House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee on Wednesday took a step toward modernizing the nation's health care system by approving legislation intended to speed the adoption of electronic medical records.

Comment on this article in The Forum.One day after House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell and ranking member Joe Barton introduced the bill, subcommittee members approved the $575 million measure by voice vote and called for swift passage on the House floor. Health Subcommittee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said he hoped the full committee would consider the bill before August recess.

"Health IT almost made it through the last Congress, but it got down to the last day and the last hour of lame-duck session, and [we] just couldn't quite get there," Barton said, adding he hoped for final passage this fall.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy and ranking member Michael Enzi have introduced a similar bill, which has passed their committee.

Dingell, who released a discussion draft a month ago, said the legislation will lower health care costs, reduce medical errors and increase efficiency of health care systems. The bill makes permanent a health IT coordination office at the Department of Health and Human Service; creates incentives for adopting health IT; and strengthens privacy protection laws. The measure broadens considerations and sources of public and private input that the government must take into account when working toward an electronic records regime.

Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, argued that the legislation must be flexible and accommodate new technological advances because "the large private companies that are working on this are likely to come up with solutions that we never thought possible."

Health care providers should have a uniform definition of privacy and should be granted liability protections, he said. Incentives in the bill "have to be early, time-limited and have to be significant," he added. "I'm not certain that we've achieved that level of significance."

Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., expressed caution, calling for language that would let state attorneys general seek damages from health care systems when patient records are used improperly. HHS has a weak record of enforcing privacy rules in the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, they said. Both pointed out that there have been more than 30,000 complaints of violations, but the agency has yet to impose a single penalty. Waxman, who also chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, introduced but then withdrew an amendment that would give attorneys general that power.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who sponsored an earlier health IT bill with Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., backed the measure but said he thought stakeholders were not sufficiently consulted. "If we don't get this right, this might as well be a paperweight in every doctor's office across this country," he said.

Rogers offered and withdrew a pair of amendments that would have eliminated a section relating to consent requirements for certain uses of health information; applied HIPAA privacy rules to IT vendors; and allowed patients to review and correct their files. Pallone pledged to work with him to alleviate his concerns.

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