The GOP co-sponsor of Senate legislation to facilitate the nationwide adoption of electronic medical records would consider supporting attaching health information-technology language to an economic stimulus package that lawmakers expect to roll out early next year.
An aide to Health, Education, Labor and Pensions ranking member Michael Enzi said today that the senator has not seen sufficient details of an economic proposal to know whether adding health IT to the mix would "blow the budget." HELP Chairman Edward Kennedy and Enzi introduced legislation more than a year ago aimed at reducing health providers' administrative costs and minimizing the sometimes fatal errors caused by a lack of patient information. Privacy issues and funding concerns prevented the measure from reaching the floor.
A Kennedy spokeswoman would not comment on the proposed stimulus package but said the senator backs "quick action on the investments in health IT that President-elect Obama has called for."
Questions abound about how health IT legislation might develop in the upcoming Congress in light of its larger Democratic majority and changes in key committee leadership. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., ousted Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., last month as Energy and Commerce Committee chairman. Dingell and Energy and Commerce ranking member Joe Barton cosponsored a health IT bill that sailed through the panel in July with fewer compromises and less controversy than expected. At the time, Waxman called for a provision that would allow individuals to sue those who disclose their protected health data without consent or at the least allow state attorneys general to sue on behalf of citizens for breaches of health privacy. That proposal did not win support among some members and industry stakeholders. Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Fortney (Pete) Stark, D-Calif., introduced his health IT measure in September and is expected to reintroduce it.
In the Senate, a meeting last month attended by Finance Chairman Max Baucus, ranking member Charles Grassley, Kennedy and Enzi indicated health IT will not be limited to the HELP Committee's jurisdiction next year. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who serves on the Budget and Aging committees, believes Congress is "at least 10 years behind the rest of the world" in addressing health IT, a staffer said. Bills introduced this session included grant proposals for providers in rural and underserved areas, but they did not "make the business case" for health IT. "It's not just about getting computers in offices. We need to make sure this stuff is being used and used right," the aide said.
Meanwhile, some healthcare industry players are feeling optimistic about 2009. CIGNA Chief Medical Officer Jeffrey Kang told a health IT conference today the issue has reached "an inflection point," citing Obama's campaign pledge to invest $10 billion per year over five years in health IT and lawmakers' continued interest in the issue. "We've gone as far as we can vis-%C3%A0-vis what the private sector can do. Now it's time for [government] to fill in the gaps that the private sector can't do by itself," he said.