March 6, 2008

Senate Budget Committee Approves Bipartisan Stabenow-Whitehouse Health IT Amendment

Measure Emphasizes Iraq Veterans' Need for Integrated Medical Records

Washington, DC – Improved health information technology, including better-integrated records for service members returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, won inclusion in the Senate’s budget resolution today with the passage of a bipartisan amendment sponsored by U.S. Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). The measure, which creates a reserve fund supporting widespread adoption of health information technology and accepted best practices in clinical settings, was cosponsored by Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Mike Enzi (R-WY).

Whitehouse, a member of the Budget Committee who has introduced major health IT legislation, praised the Committee’s vote.

“Health information technology cuts costs and saves lives – but we’re not investing enough to realize those extraordinary benefits,” Whitehouse said. “I hope making health IT – especially initiatives supporting the young men and women now returning from war – a priority in our budget will help encourage greater investments and speedier reforms.”

A fully-interoperable, nationwide health information infrastructure could drastically improve patient care, by giving doctors on-the-spot information and data to support diagnoses and other decisions; preventing avoidable medical errors; connecting doctors, pharmacies, and hospitals to allow medical records to be transferred electronically; and allowing health care facilities to track inpatients’ recovery progress. A 2005 study by the RAND Corporation found that health IT implementation could save more than $81 billion annually, largely in shorter hospital stays, more effective drug usage, and reduced time spent on paperwork.

Despite the potential benefits, a lack of investment has slowed progress towards a nationwide, interoperable health IT system. As of 2005, total public investment per capita in health IT in the U.S. was only 43 cents, compared to $192.79 in the United Kingdom, according to the Commonwealth Fund. Because the costs of implementing health IT are often overwhelming for providers, who likely will not receive most of the savings associated with the new system, experts agree that public funding is critical in encouraging broader health IT adoption. The American Hospital Association reported that only 11 percent of community hospitals had fully adopted electronic health records in 2006, and a study published in Health Affairs found that only 13 percent of community health centers met even the most minimal standards for electronic health record functionality in 2007.

The Stabenow-Whitehouse amendment creates a deficit-neutral reserve fund to accommodate legislation that provides incentives or other support for adoption of modern information technology to improve quality and protect privacy in health care, or for payments that are based on adherence to accepted clinical protocols identified as best practices. Reserve funds allow the chairman of the Budget Committee to adjust the budget resolution when certain legislation is passed, to accommodate revenue and spending levels included in the new legislation. Whitehouse and Stabenow successfully passed a similar amendment during last year’s budget debate.

The measure also places special emphasis on efforts now underway by the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration to create seamless, interoperable electronic health records for service members transitioning from active duty service to veteran status. For military members returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly those who are severely wounded, this system ensures that critical diagnostic and treatment information is available, improving the quality of care available to America’s warriors. Singling this initiative out in the budget resolution will make it clear that better health IT for service members and veterans is a key priority in this Congress.

The founder of the Rhode Island Quality Institute, a leader in the state’s efforts to improve health care quality and health information technology utilization, Whitehouse has introduced Senate legislation to establish a private, non-profit corporation tasked with developing a national, interoperable, secure health IT system (S. 1455). In January, he wrote to President Bush asking for an increase in federal funding for health information technology in the administration’s budget proposal.

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