By

Washington

The increased use of information technology can and will play a major role in bringing down the costs of the health care system by increasing efficiency and access to patient information, and will be a priority for Congress, according to lawmakers speaking at a conference here.

Speakers from both sides of the aisle appearing at the Americas Health Insurance Plans 2005 National Policy Forum last week spoke of the importance of the federal government facilitating and encouraging the use of information technology in the health care system, possibly through the use of financial incentives.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said it was “ironic” that the nations medical system, which develops new technologies and procedures almost daily, “has fallen so far behind” on information technology.

“Americas health system has in many ways remained in the Stone Age,” he said, “and we need it to be in the information age.” Frist noted that moving to a system of electronic records could reduce the costs to the health care system by as much as 20% according to some estimates. “Congress needs to and will support that goal.”

A key to making that transition, he added, is for the federal government to establish interoperability standards to ensure that different systems will be able to communicate with each other. “Thats our responsibility,” he said.

Democrats, according to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., also want to “accelerate the IT revolution for health care.” Wyden also expressed some concern for interoperability issues but said Democrats are ready and willing to work on the issue, and that the obstacles to reaching the goal of interoperability are by no means insurmountable. Although he could not give a specific timetable for the health care IT expansion, he said “were in the ballpark” on the issue.

Eventually, Frist said, health care records would be available in the same way that an individual can go to an ATM anywhere in the world and access a bank account, a comparison also made by other speakers at the forum. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich argued that lawmakers should take action to enact reforms rather than letting themselves get bogged down in debate. Consumers, he said, have demonstrated their desire for secure and convenient access to their financial data via ATMs, he said, and would likely feel the same way regarding the medical records.

“It would be stunning if you did it on a volume basis; how many people would value the convenience and security rather than an obscure debate about privacy,” he said.

Should an information technology standard be established, the federal government also will work to ensure that the various elements of the health care system take advantage of it, mainly by offering incentives to those companies, hospitals and health care providers that demonstrate an increase in their efficiency while reducing costs. Frist spoke of “tying some reimbursement or bonus to the use of information technology in some way.”

Earlier in the forum, Dr. Mark McClellan, Administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said the Bush administration also supported the use of electronic standards, which he said has been a consistent policy for the White House.

“The administration already has made great progress in electronic standards in other areas, and we support it in health care,” he said. McClellan added that the administration was taking a similar “pay for performance” position for the Medicaid and Medicare systems. The “turning point” for reforming those programs “will occur when we see which plans can deliver effective care for seniors while lowering their costs,” he said. “The plans that succeed in this challenge are going to be the future of health care.”

The financial incentives of increased reimbursement, McClellan said, will move health care providers who in the past have been unwilling to make the investment in improving their efficiency. “There just wasnt a business case for doing it,” under the traditional Medicare system, he said.

Frist says that moving to a system of electronic records could reduce the costs to the health care system by as much as 20% according to some estimates


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, March 10, 2005. Copyright 2005 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.