State, federal officials: health IT can expand care, save costs

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A forum of both state elected officials and federal congressional staff took place at HIMSS 2007 in New Orleans this week, highlighting the complexities of health IT efforts on both political landscapes. Generally speaking, federal initiatives move more slowly, and the states more quickly, but when the federal government moves it is far more likely that the public will take notice.

Massachusetts continues to make headlines with its efforts last year in putting together a program that seeks to provide health coverage for all of its citizens. Any ambitious effort of this kind – seeking to extend medical coverage to those who can’t afford it – must be done in a sustainable fashion, said Massachusetts State Senator Richard Moore. He said that from his experience, health IT can be used to “reduce costs and measure quality” and in this case has the potential to save the state $2.5 billion a year. CPOE (computerized physician order entry) could save the state $1 billion alone if fully implemented, he said.

State legislators like to know what things are going to cost, but with health IT an emphasis can be placed on what money health IT can save, Moore said.

There are efforts underway to help boost state health IT efforts, such as the Health Information Technology Champions program which Moore co-chairs. The program is addressing the question of “how do we encourage our fellow state legislators to do more” in adopting health IT and establishing education programs, he said.

Beyond cost savings, Moore emphasized that health IT also can help efforts to expand care and help with quality efforts. That said, he added that healthcare professions need to do more to adopt technology beyond clinical uses and look to “utilizing technology where savings can be accrued.”

Simplifying health IT efforts is a big topic at this year’s HIMSS. State Senator Rob Hagedorn of Colorado stated during his part of the forum that for health IT initiatives to move forward, simplicity is essential. Only in this way will health IT be understood and supported, he said. His slogan is: “Simplify, justify (cost, quality, and access), but don’t mortify.”

Hagedorn emphasized some of the key benefits of health IT which is its potential to expand access to rural settings and boost quality.

Another presenter Rick Blake, senior policy advisor for Congressman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) also hopes to expand access to care through health IT but with a different angle. He said he views health IT as a means to reducing healthcare disparities for persons of color. To underscore his point, Blake said that the “medically underserved” issue is “another civil rights era” because of the disparities in access to quality care.

Blake said he is currently working on a HIT Empowerment Bill that would provide grants, tax credits or federal loan for non-profit groups to get funding for health IT efforts. These underserved communities are both urban and rural, he said, and could use the funding to get the technology and training they need.

In addressing the issue of “how we actually use this technology to solve the problems of healthcare in our poorest constituencies,” he offered principles for action:

  • Actively engage diverse communities in creating their own healthcare system; and
  • Ask yourself what would civil rights leaders of the past think about how these health IT systems are helping poor individuals.

One final speaker Jennifer Healy, senior legislative assistant for Congressman Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) said that the central reason why physicians are not purchasing health IT is cost. She said that many members in Congress have the view that it’s a problem with the physicians due to a lack of willingness or stubbornness, rather than anything related to the legislation that has been approved or proposed.

However, a recent bill passed through Congress gave $6 million in grants to help pay for EHR adoption, Healy said, breaking down to just something around $150 per physician. Yet some systems cost $200,000. So there is a huge disparity.

Healy said she hopes that certain EHR-related tax deductions being considered for as much as $200,000 might help.