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House panel approves Dingell-Barton health IT measure

The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved by voice vote today a bill aimed at creating a nationwide system of electronic medical records.

The approval came only after sponsors modified several information-sharing provisions to alleviate concerns of lawmakers and stakeholders from healthcare, high-tech and consumer groups. While the changes made since the bill's passage by a key subcommittee in June were substantial, some lawmakers did not think they went far enough. Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell said he would continue to work with those lawmakers before the bill reaches the floor. Energy and Commerce ranking member Joe Barton said he wanted that to happen quickly.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., noted the legislation uses the word "privacy" 22 times but does not define the term. Such a "straightforward, sensible" description could come from the National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics, he said. The committee may offer a definition in its report on the bill, but Markey, who introduced his own health information technology bill this year, said that was inadequate. He also argued in support of an amendment, which he withdrew, that would alert patients when their records are sent to processing firms in India, Pakistan and other countries with weak privacy laws. "American's sensitive medical secrets could be at risk as a result," he said.

Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, who also introduced a separate health IT bill, said sponsors rushed to legislate late in the session and would have had "time to get it right" had they continued deliberating in the 111th Congress. His bill would tackle certain regulatory barriers on contracts between physicians' offices, hospitals and other healthcare providers, which he said is "most likely to increase the deployment" of electronic health records.

An amendment offered by Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., to relax language that would restrict certain data disclosures and sales of health information sparked a lengthy debate. His proposal, which would roll back a record-keeping requirement on healthcare information that is routinely shared, was withdrawn after Dingell called it "dangerous," but the chairman agreed to work to craft a compromise.

Barton said Rogers' proposal was laudable because it would not force providers "to keep a log for tracking purposes that may or may not ever be used." Health Subcommittee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., opposed the idea, saying it would "gut a key provision" of the bill.

The final shape of the legislation remains unclear. The Ways and Means Committee, which has joint jurisdiction over health legislation, is holding a hearing on health IT Thursday and could produce its own bill.

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