July 20, 2005

Senate panel backs health technology bill

By Joanne Kenen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bill to encourage development of
health-information technology, which has potential to bring
down costs while improving quality, won unanimously approval by
a Senate panel on Wednesday.

"All of us believe that if we move from a paper-based
health care system to secure electronic medical records, we
will reduce mistakes, save lives, save time and save money,"
said Wyoming Republican Mike Enzi, chairman of the Senate
Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee

Government experts have estimated that the United States
could save up to $140 billion annually -- nearly 10 percent of
the total U.S. health bill -- by using computerized health

The systems also have built-in alerts that help doctors
avoid errors, such as dangerous drug interactions.

The "Wired for Health Care Quality Act" merged two similar
bills backed by powerful senators. Majority Leader Bill Frist,
a Tennessee Republican, and New York Democrat Hillary Clinton
had written one, and Enzi and his panel's top Democrat, Edward
Kennedy of Massachusetts, had offered the other.

While many health experts see the technology's potential, a
big barrier has been that the systems developed to date are not
necessarily compatible. The bill would speed up a
public-private sector initiative to create national standards
so the systems can "talk" to each other or have
"interoperability." Privacy protections are also crucial.

Ideally, doctors at different hospitals or clinics could
all access an individual's computerized medical records.

The bill also authorizes grants to help certain doctors,
hospitals and other health-care providers make initial
investments in the technology. States would also fund
low-interest loans to providers. Exact amounts would be set in
annual spending bills.

Frist, a doctor who has made the issue a priority, has said
he wants the full Senate to act on the legislation swiftly. The
House has not yet taken up companion legislation.

The legislation complements efforts begun by the Bush
administration to promote development of privacy-protected
electronic medical records and computerized medical

The health information systems can be expensive, but they
are expected to save a lot of money in U.S. health care over
the long haul.