Legislation

August 8, 2008

Just days before Congress departed on its five-week summer recess, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a health care IT bill that promises $560 million in grants and loans to help doctors adopt an electronic health record (EHR) system by 2014.

Just days before Congress departed on its five-week summer recess, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a health care IT bill that promises $560 million in grants and loans to help doctors adopt an electronic health record (EHR) system by 2014.

However, with the summer break, an election approaching, and continuing concern over online patient privacy, the bill may not budge past the House of Representatives until after Nov. 4 - if at all, says Neal Neuberger, executive director of the Institute for e-Health Policy, a nonprofit group founded by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society.

“My understanding is that the Ways and Means Committee is going to want to weigh in,” Neuberger says. “It’s unlikely, at this point, given how few weeks are left in the session, that it can all be accomplished and the bill can be reconciled.”

House Bill 6357 or “Protecting Records, Optimizing Treatment, And Easing Communication Through Healthcare Technology Act Of 2008” (“PRO[TECH]T” for short) was introduced May 22 by Senator John Dingell (D-Michigan) in the Health subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

The bill promotes the nationwide adoption of a health care information technology infrastructure and establishes incentives for doctors, hospitals, insurers, and the government to exchange health information electronically across the country.

Lawmakers budgeted $66 million for fiscal year 2009 to pay for implementation, $575 million through fiscal 2013 to pay for grants and loans to help providers purchase technology, and $30 million through fiscal 2011 for training of health care professionals.

Physician groups have embraced the goal of the bill, but they cautioned that the process to obtain grants and loans to help implement an EHR system may be too burdensome, especially for small physician practices.

The American Medical Association stopped short of fully endorsing the bill based its concerns over the disclosure of patient information and how patients are notified when there is a breach. The latest version of the legislation includes numerous updates, which addresses patient privacy concerns, but the bill seems poised for more debate. For example, while the bill requires patient consent before health information may be disclosed to another party, that single approval can be applied to multiple releases of information, even if the patient isn’t aware of it.

“We’re going to see a lot of activity in the next Congress over this issue,” Neuberger says. “Much more could and should be done by the federal government. It’s just a start on some of these issues.”