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Saturday, February 14, 2009

The stimulus package makes a down payment of about $20 billion on a key Obama priority: creating a nationwide system of electronic medical records as a foundation for health-care reform. About $300 million will go out as grants to support regional health-information exchanges, which are regional groups of hospitals and other providers that have a system to share patient data in electronic form. The money will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, advocates say.

Beginning in 2011, doctors will get bonuses of up to $44,000 over five years, and hospitals will get on average several million dollars if they can show they have computerized patient records. For those who have not gone digital by 2014, there will be Medicare payment penalties.

The legislation also includes new privacy protections. Patients will have to be notified if there is a breach of their unencrypted health information. Without patients' consent, providers and health plans are barred from selling patient data for profit, and drug firms may not pay pharmacists to send letters to patients urging them to switch drugs. Pharmacists may send notices to a patient about a drug the patient is using.

-- Ellen Nakashima

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