A meeting of the minds strategize health IT’s role in health care reform

Last week, Massachusetts Governor Duval Patrick convened a gathering to discuss the many opportunities and challenges in modernizing the nation’s health care system. Among the attendees were executive stakeholders from across the health care spectrum, from payer and provider groups, software vendors and top government officials. Leading the agenda was how health care reform could either expedite or hamper current health IT initiatives.

The two-day forum started with a series of roundtable discussions that included Vermont Governor Jim Douglas and Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe to discuss the role health IT will play in ushering health care reform at a state level. As with the larger health IT initiatives laid out previously in the Recovery Act, much of the conference focused on the interplay needed between government and the private sector to address privacy and interoperability challenges of health care reform.

“The conference was significant because it’s allowing a range of discussion about policy and technical opportunities to move the ball forward on health care,” said Bill O’Leary, Senior Director for Health and Human Services with Microsoft State and Local Government. “The health care ecosystem is pretty complex,” he continued, saying that stakeholders have worked vigorously to reconcile their business models with new laws like the HITECH Act and health care reform. “Even though health policy ranges from finance and cost, to access and outcomes, one of the driving factors of the conference was a need to put all the players in the room.”

Mr. O’Leary said last year’s HITECH Act created revenue streams for policymakers to build health information exchanges, develop their training and workforce strategies, and that those efforts have been the beginning of a blueprint to combine insurance and health IT at the state level. But before technology can address any of these issues as a whole, consensus needs to be reached on standards. In the Recovery Act, much debate from industry, government and consumers has arisen over the phrase “meaningful use” and its applications to electronic healthcare records (EHRs) in the health care system. The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) has led the efforts since December 2009 and will announce final rulings sometime in June, official have stated.

“The meaningful use definitions are evolving. It will take time in massaging with different stakeholders, but it will flush out over time,” O’Leary said.

The process for defining the nebulous and important concept of “meaningful” has taken almost a year and a half to define. Yet state and federal officials will have to define a concrete, but no less difficult, set of enrollment standards to match individuals against vital records, employment history, benefits systems and tax records for eligibility.

According to a recent INPUT report, major IT assets will be needed to manage keystones of the health reform legislation, specifically, health insurance exchanges and other web-based portals. The market research firm believes federal and state-level IT investments will near $7 billion to support pieces of the newly enacted health care reform bill. And Mr. O’Leary thinks a meaningful use-type process will soon be underway to form new standards involving providers, payers and IT industry input.

“There’s a significant amount of activity and a consensus on the role of technology, now we’re in implementation mode,” O’Leary said, “Look for a lot more discussion.”

At the federal level, ONC has begun to discuss enrollment standardization with other agencies in the Health and Human Services Department, the Internal Revenue Service and the Departments of Treasury, Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development.

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