Rescue plan renews health IT privacy debate

The multi-billion-dollar economic stimulus plan renews patient privacy issue debate.

The plan to add health information technology to the multibillion-dollar economic stimulus package legislators are developing has renewed the debate over how to protect patient privacy in a nationwide health IT system.

In offering advice to lawmakers, advocates are staking out familiar territory: One side argues that health IT often speeds information sharing into the wrong hands, while the other says overly tough privacy protections could negate the benefits of health IT.

Privacy rights defender Dr. Deborah Peel recently warned that the proposed economic stimulus package risks giving more power to companies that want to exploit health information for their own gain.

“Giving for-profit corporations…a blank check for health IT paves the way to establish a goldmine of information that can be used to increase profits [and] promote expensive — not necessarily more effective — drugs, devices and treatment,” Peel said this week.

Connecting The Medical Dots

Congress is considering adding money for health information technology to January’s stimulus package.

Doing so could spur a critical mass of the nation’s doctors to finally enter the information age, but unless the funds are tied to standards for the interoperability of health IT systems, the expenditure could do more harm than good.

Before lawmakers act, they need to think: If stimulus money supports a proliferation of systems that can’t exchange information, we will only be replacing paper-based silos of medical information with more expensive, computer-based silos that are barely more useful. Critical information will remain trapped in proprietary systems, unable to get to where it’s needed.

Health IT systems produce value when they are interoperable. When they’re not, doctors who invest in electronic health records cannot share information with each other or add lab results to your file or send electronic prescriptions to your pharmacist. They would have to use handwritten prescriptions and paper files in addition to their electronic files.

Senators consider their options for health IT overhaul

Senators Enzi and Kennedy discuss legislation linking nationwide electronic data base to economic stimulus.

An aide to Health, Education, Labor and Pensions ranking member Michael Enzi said today that the senator has not seen sufficient details of an economic proposal to know whether adding health IT to the mix would “blow the budget.” HELP Chairman Edward Kennedy and Enzi introduced legislation more than a year ago aimed at reducing health providers’ administrative costs and minimizing the sometimes fatal errors caused by a lack of patient information. Privacy issues and funding concerns prevented the measure from reaching the floor.

CIGNA Chief Medical Officer Jeffrey Kang, at a health IT conference today, cited Obama’s campaign pledge to invest $10 billion per year over five years in health IT and lawmakers’ continued interest in the issue. “We’ve gone as far as we can vis-a-vis what the private sector can do. Now it’s time for [government] to fill in the gaps that the private sector can’t do by itself,” he said.