HHS prepares to award health IT contracts

The Health and Human Services Department will award contracts next week in the next step in its efforts to pave the way for adoption of health IT. The contracts are intended to develop standards harmonization, standards compliance certification and assessments of the variations in state privacy laws.

"The numerous pieces are coming together," David Brailer, national coordinator for health IT at HHS, told lawmakers Thursday at a hearing before the House Government Reform Committee.

HHS anticipates that a single set of standards will emerge for a national health information infrastructure after the contractors reconcile existing standards and recommend any necessary new ones, and the public-private organization, the American Health Information Community, approves the standards.

Adopting health IT technologies, such as electronic health records, will reduce medical errors and improve health care quality because it will bring more patient information to the point of care, Brailer said.

However, physicians, especially in small practices, have balked at the cost and disruption of implementing health IT systems. The contracts should add certainty to physician investments in technology that the applications will operate and be able to exchange data.

"We will try to make it so easy that physicians will want to go online," Brailer said.

Later in October, HHS plans to award contracts for several prototypes of a national health information infrastructure, which will also include work done on the Federal Health Architecture, he said. HHS also will issue a contract to measure the adoption of electronic health records to provide a benchmark against which to compare in future surveys.

David Powner, director of IT management issues at the Government Accountability Office, gave HHS an "A" for leadership in shepherding health IT. But plans and implementation will be difficult.

"Although federal leadership has been established and plans and several actions have positioned HHS to further define and implement relevant standards, consensus on the definition and use of standards still needs to occur," he said. GAO will monitor the effectiveness of milestones HHS creates and the metrics by which to measure success, including the reduction of medical errors.

Chairman Tom Davis and other lawmakers cited Hurricane Katrina as highlighting the need for expanded health IT and the role of physicians as "second responders" in the aftermath of hurricanes.

"They should have the support of the same sophisticated IT systems as our first responders, enabling them to respond to a crisis quickly, to retrieve and share the critical records and information that they need to save lives," Davis said.

In fact, a public-private ad hoc group, which Brailer brought together, has launched a secure online service, Katrinahealth.org, for authorized health professionals from anywhere in the country who are treating Katrina evacuees to gain electronic access to their prescription medication records.

Rep. Jon C. Porter (R-Nev.) said he would introduce in the next two weeks the Federal Family Health Information Technology Act, which would mandate the provision of electronic health data for every federal employee and eligible family member. Eventually, Porter's bill would provide a portable, wallet-sized card containing the information to the federal employees.

Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) also announced plans to propose legislation to promote health IT. His bill "would establish a loan program and financing options for providers furnishing electronic health record systems," he said. Clay's bill also would codify Brailer's office.

Mary Mosquera is a staff writer for Washington Technology's sister publication, Government Computer News. GCN senior writer Wilson Dizard contributed to this article.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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