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Health information exchanges are vital to pandemic responses, official says

State health information exchanges, which hold and collate electronic medical records, are vital to the federal government's ability to rapidly respond to a public health emergency, a Health and Human Services Department official told a Senate panel Tuesday.

The Senate Committee on Health Education and Labor is considering reauthorizing legislation for the 2006 Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, which established Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Nicole Lurie's position as a catchall organizer during public health emergencies.

Lurie's office published a National Health Security Strategy in 2009. Her office is working on the final draft of a Biennial Implementation Plan for that strategy, calling for increased reliance on the data provided by state-centered health information exchanges.

The federal government had invested more than $500 million in grants to states and territories to develop the necessary infrastructure for those exchanges as of January.

During the mid-2010 swine flu epidemic, Lurie's office, working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was able to use online medical data to paint a much fuller picture of regions where outbreaks of the disease were most severe and where they were ebbing, she told senators.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said the federal government is "underinvested" in health information exchanges considering their utility in tracking and responding to future pandemics.

"As we transform from a health infrastructure that basically has computers on doctors' desks and you still have to go out and get information from hospitals and the labs and pharmacies . . . into a really integrated health information infrastructure, information exchanges are the key that links all of that together," Whitehouse said. "That's really the accelerator in terms of safety or cost savings, or even a public health perspective."

Senators urged Lurie to say whether she'd been given enough authority to properly manage a major health crisis, or if something else should be shifted to her authority.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the sponsor of the original pandemic preparedness act, said the Southern tornadoes earlier this month "underscore the ability of Mother Nature to throw a biological curveball with the ability to reach the scale of the 1918 [influenza] epidemic."

Senators also on Tuesday criticized the Food and Drug Administration for its slow drug approval process and speculated whether Lurie's office should be given additional authority to administer unapproved drugs in the event of a pandemic.

The United States keeps drugs that have not yet been approved by FDA in its stockpile, but doctors cannot administer them without a high-level authorizing process.

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