Senate Committee Passes Health IT Improvement Bill

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee passed legislation (S.2511) on February 9 that would address a number of shortcomings in federal law governing electronic health records (EHRs). The committee passed the bill unanimously by a vote of 22-0. It is awaiting action on the Senate floor.

Electronic health records are computer records that contain a patient’s medical history, including information on past physician visits, diagnoses, and medications. They can create a more comprehensive view of a patient’s health and reduce costs by avoiding unnecessary duplication of tests. A recent study funded by Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality suggests that EHRs have helped reduce adverse events such as hospital-acquired infections. Under optimal conditions, they can also be shared between health providers and improve care coordination.

The federal government has provided substantial financial subsidies to encourage the use of EHRs and they are being increasingly adopted by hospitals and other health providers.

Despite their potential benefits, however, their adoption has not been completely smooth. Some doctors complain that EHRs force them to spend too much time looking over and updating electronic health records and less time with their patients.

Their potential for coordinating care across multiple providers has been hampered by poor interoperability among competing systems. EHRs have also come under increasing attack from cyber criminals. Such records often include substantial personal and financial information, well beyond what might be found financial or credit card records. In some cases, such information has been used for insurance fraud. In other cases, hospitals have been threatened with data destruction and subjected to ransom demands.

The new Senate bill (summary) would address a number of these barriers, including promoting interoperability among EHR systems and allowing other health professionals to update records so that doctors can focus more on patients.

In late February, the Obama administration also announced an agreement among major hospital systems, leading vendors representing 90 percent of the EHR market, and health care systems in 46 states that would reduce barriers to information sharing and make it easier for patients to access their records.

Update: The House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee held a hearing on health IT issues on March 22.

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