Bill to Promote Electronic Health Records

By Stephen Barr
Thursday, March 2, 2006

In an effort to dramatically expand the use of "electronic health records," a key House chairman said yesterday that he will propose legislation to promote their use in the federal employee health insurance program.

Nearly 8 million government workers, their families and survivors receive insurance coverage through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. The Office of Personnel Management oversees FEHBP and contracts with insurance companies to provide health plans at competitive rates.

Rep. Jon C. Porter (R-Nev.), who chairs the House federal workforce subcommittee, said creating an electronic records system for FEHBP would nudge insurance companies to set up similar systems for their private-sector patients and health care providers.

"They just need the encouragement to take it to the next step," Porter said. "This should help families all over the country . . . whether they are in the federal program or not."

Rep. William L. Clay Jr. (D-Mo.) has signed on as the chief co-sponsor, he said.

Porter said his bill would permit health insurance companies that participate in FEHBP to tap into the program's financial reserves and divert a small percentage to pay for new technology. That would cover start-up costs without forcing an increase in premiums, he said.

The proposed system would provide for a personal health record, which would be protected by a personal identification number, or PIN. Federal employees and retirees who become ill or injured while traveling could make their health information, such as allergies or medications, available to doctors and hospital emergency rooms, Porter said.

Doctors would be encouraged to invest in the technology through a trust fund controlled by the OPM, Porter said. The bill would permit private groups to make donations to the fund, which would issue grants to help doctors and others implement electronic records systems. The fund would be exempt from anti-kickback laws. The Health and Human Services Department would help draft regulations for the fund's operation.

Porter said that the Veterans Affairs Department is using electronic medical records to improve patient care and that Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, "literally in four days," compiled three years of claims data to create electronic records for about 800,000 residents in the path of Hurricane Rita. The effort was made to avoid the chaos caused by the destruction of thousands of paper medical records by Hurricane Katrina.

"That tells me we can do it," Porter said of the Blue Cross success.

Privacy concerns are a critical factor in efforts to transfer health records into computer databases -- "a fear by some that all this information could get into the wrong hands," Porter said. He said that the OPM and HHS are working to strengthen privacy-protection rules and that he would expect electronic medical records to be at least as safe as transactions involving financial information.

Porter said his initiative "all started with my mom," who is 84. She faces many of the challenges of older Americans -- keeping track of when to take her prescriptions and which health records need to transfer when she sees a new doctor, he said.

Porter said he also spends time with foster children, who often move from home to home, sometimes without records showing when and what types of inoculations or exams they have had.

An aide to Porter said that the bill would be introduced today and that a hearing would be held March 15.

Retirements

Toni Hockenbrought , administrative assistant for federal district and appeals court judges at the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, will retire Friday after 41 years of service in the judicial branch.

Mary Lewis , supervisory information-technology specialist at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, retired Jan. 3 after more than 42 years of government service.


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