Stark pitches bill for national health-data system

House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee chairman Pete Stark, D-Fremont, today introduced the “Health-e Information Technology Act of 2008,” which would require the government to set clear standards for an interoperable electronic medical records system by a fixed date, as well as creation of an open-source system meeting those standards to be made available at little or no cost to all providers.

While chairing a hearing back in July, Stark had noted the U.S. health care system “is among the most advanced in the world in terms of diagnosing and treating disease. But when it comes to how medical records are stored and shared, we are stuck in the 19th century” with unwieldy, cost-inefficient paper records.

This bill, he now says, is the fix.

“If we want a uniform, interoperable health care system in America, time has shown us that we can’t depend on the private sector to do it on their own,” he said in his news release. “This is the perfect role for government. We should work with stakeholders to develop the standards, ensure an affordable product is available, and pay providers to adopt it. That’s exactly what the Health-e Information Technology Act does.”

According to a summary (and a more in-depth analysis) prepared by Stark’s staffers, the bill would codify the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONCHIT) within the Department of Health and Human Services, an office created by Executive Order in 2004. This national coordinator, working with an advisory committee representing private and public stakeholders, would be responsible for creating standards to achieve widespread adoption of interoperable, secure, and clinically useful electronic health records. The first generation of these standards would be finalized no later than October 2011.

The coordinator also would overseee development of a certified open-source health information technology system that meets these new standards; this system would be available to health care providers at low cost as soon as possible, but not later than nine months after the standards are set. Providers who choose to take advantage of the incentives would be able to choose from a variety of systems, including both private or proprietary options and the new system coordinated by ONCHIT.

The bill also provides money through Medicare to doctors and hospitals that adopt and use electronic medical records systems certified under the new standards: Doctors who install and use such a system could collect up to about $40,000 over five years, while hospitals could be elgible for up to a few million dollars. (Grant programs would be available for providers that don’t get Medicare reimbursements.) Those incentives would phase out over a few years, while Medicare payments would be reduced for those not using certified systems.

Stark says his bill improves current privacy protections under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, maintaining “a strong federal floor of privacy and security” for health records without pre-empting state laws and rules that might be more protective.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.