February 4, 2009

Whitehouse Urges Investment in Health Information Technology

Mr. WHITEHOUSE: Mr. President, I rise today to discuss a feature of the economic recovery legislation that will both create jobs in the short term and help us confront the long-term economic challenges that are facing us.

Clearly, creating jobs is a paramount goal of this legislation. In this time of deepening recession, one in ten Rhode Islanders is looking for a job. At 10%, our unemployment rate is the highest in New England and the second highest across this entire nation. As I’ve traveled around my state, I’ve heard from countless Rhode Islanders struggling to hold on to their retirement savings, their homes and their livelihoods.

Against this dark background, jobs mean security. Steady employment helps families pay the bills and plan for the future. Jobs mean confidence in an unsettled time. In this weakening economy, job creation should be our highest economic priority.

But at the end of the day, the best jobs that this legislation can create are jobs that produce lasting infrastructure, assets that will help our economy function smoothly for years to come, like highways, bridges, weatherized homes and schools, water treatment plants. These are win-wins for the American people.

And fortunately, this bill goes beyond a definition of infrastructure as just the things that the Romans could have built. The last few decades have seen enormous innovation in this country. New communications platforms, the internet and mobile phones, new sources of energy. This technological revolution is transforming the way we live and work, just as the rail system did and the highway system did in decades and centuries past. And just as the federal government helped build the railways and highways, the bricks and mortar infrastructure of the 20th century, today this recovery bill will support the digital infrastructure of the 21st century. It is a dual benefit: jobs today and a platform for growth tomorrow.

To me, one of the most vital parts of our nation’s infrastructure in this 21st century will be the development of a national health information network to improve the quality and efficiency of health care, to save money and to save lives.

But today this network is growing at the speed of mud. Health care is frighteningly behind the rest of American industry in its development and implementation of information technology. Why? Because of economics. The strange, bizarre, twisted economics of our health care system that fails to reward doctors and hospitals when they invest in health information infrastructure.

If we can solve the health information network problem, private industry will develop technology to allow doctors to prescribe drugs electronically and help remind you to take them. Technology will help doctors update your vital information in real-time and cross-reference your health issues with the best illness, prevention, and treatment strategies. And technology promises decision support programs implementing best medical practices which will help health care providers avoid costly, life threatening, and completely unnecessary medical errors that now bedevil our health care system.

Just look at what private technology and innovation have already done with the internet. Google, eBay, Amazon, YouTube, Facebook. Whose life has not been changed? Now imagine what can happen in health care. Wonderful opportunities beckon, both in the near term, because funding this infrastructure will create jobs in the information technology sector, and in the long term, to help us bring down the spiraling health care costs that threatens to engulf our economy.

But the broken economics of the health care system mean that those opportunities just won’t arise without help. Unless the federal government gets involved to set standards for this technology that everyone can agree on, the resolution of a digital x-ray image, for instance, or requirements protecting patients’ privacy, or leveling economic obstacles, we will never get to a national system. The Romans could not build an electronic health information infrastructure, but we can and we must, and this legislation will.

There are rumors that an amendment will shortly be adopted that would, among other things, strip out this investment in health information technology. Of all the dumb mistakes that we could make in this bill, that would be the very dumbest of all. It would harm the immediate element of job creation that is important to this infrastructure. It would slow down the development of a national health information infrastructure. And it would compromise our ability to deal with the health care crisis that is looming just behind the economic crisis we are dealing with now. As I see it, we have three waves stacked up. We have an economic crisis that is upon us that we need to address. Immediately behind that is a bigger and worse health care crisis, bigger and worse than the crisis we are facing now. And behind that is an environmental global warming and climate change crisis that is bigger still. Now is the time to prepare for that next health care crisis, the one that we will have to address as soon as we begin to get our arms around the economic crisis.

I’ve been a champion of health information technology since I was Attorney General of Rhode Island years ago, and the snail’s pace of adoption has both perplexed and disappointed me. I frequently ask doctors from all across the country why they insist on using paper, and I always get the same three answers. One, I can’t afford it in my practice to put all this machinery in. Two, I tried using health information technology but it was too complicated. Or, three, I don’t want to invest in this and then get it wrong. I don’t want to invest until I know what the standards are. I don’t want to take the — what I call the beta max risk of investing in the wrong technology. And there’s an additional problem, at least for electronic proscribing. The federal government insists on doctors maintaining a private system — a paper system for controlled prescriptions. So if you try move to an electronic system, you now have to maintain two, so it really doesn’t make any sense. Well, the doctors’ concerns about health information technology are answered in this recovery package.

First, the bill addresses the cost issue in a number of ways. If you’re a doctor who can’t afford to purchase a health information system so that your patients can have an electronic health record of their own that is private and securely theirs, this bill has grant money to help you. If you’re a doctor who’s doing well enough not to need a grant but could certainly use a loan to make this happen, the bill has loan money for you.

Or maybe you’re a doctor who can afford the up front investment but you haven’t been able to make the business case for the ongoing use of the technology and the change that it will require in the day-to-day administration of your practice. This bill reverses the backwards incentives that discourage the use of health information technology and that discouraged quality improvement efforts. For the first time, Medicare and Medicaid are going to pay for meaningful use of health information technology in doctors’ offices. Starting with this recovery bill, keeping people healthy will keep the business of medicine healthy.

Second is the challenge of technology. Health information technology is about much more than just digitizing data, more than going from illegible handwriting to clear electronic type. Health IT is about coordinating care between multiple providers. Anybody who has serious illness is aware of the confusion that surrounds having to deal with multiple doctors. Health IT is about helping patients and their loved one manage those complex, chronic conditions. Health IT is about using best practice protocols so the wide variation – the wide and unexplained variation – in American medicine, can be narrowed down to the best practices that we know of and Americans can be assured they’re getting the best quality of care. Health IT is about better care for patients who are ill, and it’s also about preventive care for patients so that they don’t become ill.

The recovery bill recognizes that the goal is not health IT in every pot, but higher quality, more efficient care for every single American who interacts with our health care system. The economic recovery bill also recognizes that for some doctors, this is a lofty goal and that they’ll need more than just money to get there.

Everyone knows that new technologies are hard to learn, hard to adapt to, and hard to incorporate into an existing system. You can be a brilliant doctor, a master at the healing arts, and still have trouble coping with the demands of a new information technology. And it often seems easier just to keep doing things as they’ve always been done. So this bill doesn’t just hand out grants to buy big, fancy new boxes of equipment to sit in office closets. This bill includes implementation assistance so that doctors have a little help opening that box, installing that technology, and putting it to work on behalf of their patients.

That assistance will be offered through regional extension centers, not unlike our agricultural extension service that has been helping farmers all over this great nation for decades. Every senator in this body from a rural state knows how helpful and effective the agricultural extension model is. And for those of us from urban areas, think of it as a geek squad for American doctors.

Third, the standards issues. Our esteemed colleague, Dr. Coburn, has often noted that the greatest challenge he sees in building up our national health information infrastructure is the lack of national standards. Doctors are often afraid to adopt new technology before they’re sure that their health information system will be able to talk to other doctors’ health information systems.

Fortunately, significant progress has been made in creating a broad set of standards for health information technology products, thanks in large part to the leadership of outgoing HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt. The recovery bill acknowledges that progress and builds upon it, establishing a new health information technology standards committee, and establishes a process for the adoption of future standards, implementation specifications, and certification criteria so you know what you’re buying meets the standards.

All that said, we all know that health information infrastructure is ultimately about patients. Patients must trust and participate in the health information technology revolution if it’s going to reach its full potential. Therefore, the recover bill includes a number of vital privacy protections to ensure the security and the confidentiality of electronic patient records. These protections include changes in notification policy if there is an unauthorized acquisition or disclosure of protected health information. It includes the establishment of privacy officers in HHS Regional offices. New restrictions on the sale of health information, improved enforcement of violations to privacy law, and other strong provisions.

I’m well aware that privacy is a controversial and highly charged area of debate. I think it’s important that we all view the privacy provisions in this bill as the beginning and not the end of our national discussion about health care privacy. These provisions will require oversight and perhaps, over time, adjustment. And I look forward to this ongoing challenge, and remain committed to being engaged in it. But for now, this is a good, strong privacy package. It has, I think, solid agreement in this building.

Last, but certainly not least, I want to acknowledge the extraordinary work of the man who has been committed to health care in the Senate longer than anyone else. The incomparable senator from Massachusetts, Edward Kennedy. He has been a tremendous supporter of advancing health information technology for years, and was the primary architect of this language in the Senate. As always, we are in his debt for the expertise and the leadership, the passion and the compassion, that he provides. And we look forward to his speedy return to the floor.

I’ll conclude, Mr. President, by saying I know that there’s an enormous amount of politics now surrounding this economic recovery plan. But in order to try to make the politics look good, let’s not hit what is probably the smartest and the best investment in this whole plan. One that not only works to provide jobs in a key American industry today, but that lays the foundation for addressing what is probably the next biggest most dangerous problem that is facing Americans behind this immediate economic crisis. Let us not be fools here in the service of political expedience. Let us stick with these health information technology elements of the bill, support them energetically, and I hope every colleague will see the wisdom of them and support their inclusion in this bill. I thank the presiding officer for his courtesy and I yield the floor.