Senate OKs Electronic Health Records

Published February 1, 2006

In response to President George W. Bush’s challenge to Congress to develop standards for a nationwide electronic health record (EHR) network, the Senate approved the “Wired for Health Care Quality Act” (S. 1418) on November 18, 2005.

The bill encourages the adoption of cutting-edge information technologies in health care, to improve patient care, reduce medical errors, and contribute to cost savings for health care providers, according to U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

“The greatest improvements in quality of health care and cost savings will be realized when all elements of the health care system are electronically connected and speak a common technical language–that is, [when] they are interoperable,” said Enzi. “In order to address the health information technology ‘adoption gap’ in the United States, S.1418 authorizes three grant programs that will carefully target financial support to health care providers to facilitate the adoption of interoperable health information technology.”

Collaboration Encouraged

The bill encourages the private sector to be involved and adopt standard-setting processes. It also establishes grants to help leverage the federal government’s investment in health care by targeting financial resources to providers who need help to get online.

“This brings us closer to enabling all Americans [to have] the freedom and security of going to the doctor’s office or hospital and presenting an electronic card or identification tag that holds all patient data, [including] insurance and medical history records. This technology also would improve patient care by reducing medical errors and allowing for more efficient record keeping to help save lives,” Enzi said on November 18 when the bill received unanimous Senate approval.

Goal Is Quality

The bill directs the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to:

  • establish and chair the public-private American Health Information Collaborative;
  • make recommendations to identify uniform national standards for adoption by the federal government to support the widespread adoption of health IT;
  • award competitive grants to hospitals, group practices, and other health care providers to facilitate the adoption of health IT;
  • award demonstration grants to health professions centers and academic health centers to integrate health IT into the clinical education of doctors and health care providers; and
  • establish quality measures to ultimately reward health care providers who improve the quality of care patients receive.

“This bill brings the government and the private sector together to make health care better, safer, and more efficient by accelerating the widespread adoption of interoperable health information technology and quality measurement across our health care system,” Enzi said.

IT to Help Katrina Victims

In addition to legislative action, the implementation of health care IT moved forward on a regional basis with two November 2005 initiatives to rush electronic health record technology to the hurricane-damaged Gulf Coast region.

First, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the establishment of a task force of local and national experts to help providers in storm-ravaged areas turn to electronic records as they rebuild their patients’ destroyed medical records.

According to HHS, the task force is charged with helping implement, support, and disseminate state-of-the-art information technology contributing to an infrastructure supportive of interoperable health care data exchange.

The Southern Governors’ Association will host the Gulf Coast Health Information Task Force, bringing together local and national resources and coordinating the planning for a digital health information recovery.

In addition to those efforts, the second HHS project assigns the State of Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals with the task of developing a prototype of health information-sharing and electronic health record (EHR) support that can be replicated throughout the region.

“The initiatives … align with national efforts to advance the use of electronic health records and accelerate secure sharing of health information among providers,” said David Brailer, M.D., HHS national coordinator for health information technology, announcing the programs. “Making patient data accessible to authorized physicians, whether it is following a hurricane or as part of routine care, remains a challenge that must be addressed.”

HHS Awards Contracts

Also in November, HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt announced the award of contracts totaling $18.6 million to four groups of health care and health information technology organizations to develop prototypes for a Nationwide Health Information Network (NHIN).

The contracts are intended to complete the foundation for an interoperable, standards-based network for the secure exchange of health care information. HHS previously awarded contracts to create processes to harmonize health information standards, develop criteria to certify and evaluate health IT products, and develop solutions to address variations in business policies and state laws that affect privacy and security practices that may pose challenges to the secure communication of health information.

Each consortium will be a partnership between technology developers and health care providers in three local health care markets. Each group will develop an information architecture (a plan for a system to accommodate an information network) and a prototype network for secure sharing of information among hospitals, laboratories, pharmacies, and physicians in the three participating markets, according to the HHS Web site. Additionally, all four consortia will work together to ensure information can move seamlessly between each of the four networks to be developed, thus establishing a single infrastructure for the sharing of electronic health information.

The four consortia are to be led by Accenture, Computer Science Corporation (CSC), International Business Machines (IBM), and Northrop Grumman.

“These prototypes are the key to information portability for American consumers and are a major step in our national effort to modernize health care delivery,” said Brailer when the agreements were announced. “This is a critical piece of moving health IT from hope to reality.”

Susan Konig ([email protected]) is managing editor of Health Care News.