By Senator John Thune
The vast network of health care providers across our country have the important responsibility of managing the secure exchange of patient health information between consumers, providers, government entities, and insurers. The sharing of this information through hospital systems and between physicians and patients has increasingly been managed by health information technology (health IT).
This month, the medical community will recognize National Health IT Week, September 16-20, 2013. Health IT is the electronic storage of records, electronic billing, electronic ordering of tests and procedures, and even a shared, interoperable network to allow providers to communicate with one another. It has become an important tool in improving the quality and effectiveness of health care, helping to prevent medical errors, reduce medical costs, and increase administrative efficiencies in the health care system. The ability to access digital records of a patient even in another city, state, or country has the potential to dramatically change the way we deliver modern medicine.
While the advancement of health IT holds the promise of increasing efficiency, the key legislation funding and guiding the adoption of health IT, the Health Information Technology and Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act has left many stakeholders, including providers, patients, and electronic health record vendors, pointing to ongoing problems with the law.
Earlier this year, I led a group of my colleagues in producing a white paper on the key deficiencies with the HITECH Act. Some of these deficiencies are of particular concern for rural areas of South Dakota. The HITECH Act provides incentive payments to encourage doctors and hospitals to adopt and use certified electronic health records (EHRs). The incentive payments will be phased out over time and replaced with penalties for not "meaningfully using" health IT. The requirements to meet these "meaningful use" standards are difficult for small hospital networks and physician clinics to meet. Imposing penalties on these small, rural facilities could make it more difficult to continue to provide care in some smaller communities.
This July, in a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, I requested increased flexibility from the Department of Health and Human Services for rural hospitals and physician clinics to meet meaningful use standards. While the administration has yet to provide clarification, I will continue to work on behalf of rural health care for the flexibility needed to implement EHRs throughout the state.