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Ways And Means set to advance its own health IT bill

House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Fortney (Pete) Stark, D-Calif., said today he plans to introduce a bill aimed at spurring widespread adoption of electronic medical records.

Comment on this article in The Forum.The proposal would use Medicare reimbursement as an incentive for implementation by healthcare providers. It would also protect patient privacy and give individuals the right to sue for damages when their records are breached. He said his bill should not be seen as an effort to thwart other legislation that is pending in the chamber. Sources said he hopes to introduce the measure next week.

Stark's announcement came at a hearing on the subject a day after the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed its own health IT bill. That measure included extensive information-sharing and privacy safeguards, but it did not include a "private right of action" proposal pitched by Reps. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., and Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

Waxman unsuccessfully proposed that state attorneys general be allowed to sue on behalf of citizens for breaches, contending that thousands of complaints have been ignored by the Bush administration.

Stark called out HHS for having "moved rather slowly" since President Bush set a goal four years ago for all Americans to have electronic medical records by 2014.

"When it comes to medical records, we're stuck in the 19th century," Stark said, holding up a 500-page bundle of papers that he said was an aide's dossier from a single physician. It took the staffer several telephone calls and more than $100 to obtain the files, he said.

He added that U.S. financial and banking industries, as well as countries like Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom, have made great strides in going digital, while the U.S. healthcare sector - where only 10-20 percent of physicians are using e-records - is "stuck in a rut." No one from the administration was present to testify.

Ways and Means Health Subcommittee ranking member Dave Camp, R-Mich., who introduced a separate health IT bill in June, called for caution when crafting privacy language to ensure that healthcare workers' ability to treat patients is not impaired.

"Congress must ... not overburden them with a new unworkable set of regulations," he said, urging Stark to work cooperatively on his bill. Meanwhile, Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, said he believed privacy provisions in the Energy and Commerce bill were not strict enough. Unless appropriate privacy safeguards are in place, "we won't get the kind of honest, complete data that we need," he said.

CBO Director Orszag told members that fostering nationwide adoption of electronic medical records is "the most important fiscal question we face" with respect to the U.S. healthcare system, but he recommended that a "stick" would work better than a "carrot." Enforcement efforts and penalties could be combined with rewards for compliance for the optimal impact, he said. A similar approach was taken with electronic prescription provisions in the recently passed Medicare repayment legislation, he noted.

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