The federal government seems ready to put its checkbook where its rhetoric has been on the subject of health information technology.
Last week, HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt held a briefing on healthcare IT, in which he said HHS had established "an aggressive schedule" for IT efforts and noted that a nationwide electronic health-record system was a high priority. The meeting was sponsored by the Business Roundtable.
Scott Wallace, chief executive officer of the National Alliance for Health Information Technology, said Leavitt's message is significant for hospitals and their patients.
"I think anyone who heard the secretary talk will look at it as a clear indication that the federal government is ready to play a major role in health IT," Wallace said. "Up until now, the government has been somewhat ambivalent on the subject."
A report for HHS' national coordinator for health IT that was released at Leavitt's briefing said using IT to its full potential in healthcare will depend on widespread adoption of interoperable systems and provider-payer collaboration as well as leveraging the federal government's position as the largest healthcare payer. The report, prepared by the Lewin Group at HHS' request, said collaborative investment in healthcare IT was essential to the future of the nation's healthcare system and the U.S. economy. Leavitt said that the greatest challenge would be coordinating the efforts of various federal agencies.
Including maintenance, upgrades and new system installations, healthcare organizations spend $17 billion to $42 billion per year on health IT, according to the report.
The administration's Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology has estimated annual savings from a national electronic healthcare records system could be anywhere from 7.5% to 30% of annual healthcare spending.
But how much money the federal government is willing to invest on such a project remains unclear. Wallace, for one, said he is encouraged that Leavitt seems to be taking the lead. "If you look at health IT historically, it's always been private sector-focused, but now there seems to be a switch, where the government is now sharing in on it," Wallace said. "They now seem to be acting as an investor."
Adding to the momentum for IT adoption, Reps. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) and Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) last week introduced a bill that would provide doctors and hospitals with incentives to adopt health IT networks and would provide grants to help fund development of regional health information organizations. Also last week Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said they would work together on legislation to support the adoption of healthcare electronic record-keeping applications.