Medical Device Daily Washington Editor

WASHINGTON – Last week, prior to Congress’ 4th of July recess, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) added to the growing list of healthcare information technology (HIT) legislation being considered by Congress.

In offering the Better Healthcare through Information Technology Act of 2005 – co-sponsored by Sens. Max Baucus (D-Montana), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming), chairman of the Senate’s health committee – Kennedy likened the potential advances in HIT to the modern “medical miracles” provided by other new technologies and devices.

“Modern electronics have given doctors implantable pacemakers to save patients from cardiac failure, and the sequencing of the human genome offers extraordinary opportunities for new cures and better treatments,” Kennedy said. “But there is another medical miracle to add to the list. Modern information technology can transform healthcare as profoundly as any of these discoveries.”

The legislation proposed, according to Kennedy, would “enhance the development” of standards for HIT and improve federal use of HIT by requiring the development of standards on interoperability and other technical measures, as well as establishing a public-private consultation. Under the law, all federal IT purchases would have to conform to the standards.

The legislation would give statutory authority to David Brailer, MD, the national coordinator for healthcare IT.

Brailer’s office was charged last year by President George Bush to implement a system of electronic medical records for all Americans within 10 years, but has been plagued by a series of budgetary setbacks.

The measure also would provide three new funding mechanisms to help doctors and hospitals acquire technology. The proposal calls for grants to financially needy providers to acquire HIT systems, financial assistance to establish regional health information technology organizations and federally and state-funded financing to make loans available at below-market rates to purchase HIT.

The state fund would accept private sector contributions from health plans and large hospital systems, which would benefit from having more doctors using HIT systems.

In addition, the law calls for establishing a best practices center where IT users can learn from the experience of others who have established regional HIT networks.

A “Help Line” would be set up through the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to assist with technical questions on implementing IT systems and complying with technical requirements.

Also, in a move that should please technology companies and physicians, the legislation would create a limited safe harbor to the Stark and anti-kickback statutes to facilitate investments in HIT. Currently, large hospital systems that want to give IT systems and training to providers are inhibited from doing do by fear of prosecution, Kennedy said.

The bill also addresses patient information safety and security.

Kennedy praised Senate colleagues Hillary Clinton (D-New York) and Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) for their recent proposed HIT legislation, but also pointed out differences between the two (MDD, June 28, 2005).

The bill offered by Kennedy, Grassley, Baucus and Enzi proposes additional funding and grant options, and also includes some alignment with current incentives to improve quality within the Medicare program.

Kennedy termed HIT part of America’s “moral responsibility” to make modern medicine available to every American.

“Families have to choose between healthcare and groceries, rent, and college tuition. That’s not the American dream,” he said. “Information technology alone can’t solve these problems, but it can help. It can help save lives and dramatically cut costs.”

According to statistics provided by HHS, improved use of HIT could save $140 billion annually, or almost 10% of total U.S. healthcare spending. At present, only 10% of hospitals have operational computerized prescribing systems, with another 20% of hospitals currently installing them, HHS reports.

Those savings would produce a technology dividend of more than $700 on the cost of an average family’s insurance policy, Kennedy said.

On a list of 15 European countries, the U.S. ranks 12th in the adoption of HIT.

“When millions of Americans struggle to afford healthcare for their families, it is profoundly wrong to squander more than half a trillion dollars each year on administrative expen-ses,” Kennedy said. “Our economic competitors have already taken action to use this extraordinary technology to cut costs and save lives, but America lags behind. We cannot continue to allow the high cost of healthcare to price American goods and services out of the global marketplace.”

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