Senators question HHS chief about health IT issues

The head of the Health and Human Services Department was grilled Tuesday about the swelling medical costs to citizens.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a proponent of health information technology, pressed HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt for explanations on health IT spending in the president's fiscal 2008 budget request during Leavitt's appearance before the Senate Budget Committee.

Whitehouse argued that the proposed $118 million for the office of the national health IT coordinator is too small of an investment to significantly cut the cost of treatment, preventive care and prescriptions. He also noted that David Brailer left the job as health IT coordinator months ago and has not been replaced.

"I would like to see appointments and budget money that gets behind the needs that we have," Whitehouse said.

When he was the attorney general of Rhode Island, Whitehouse founded a public-private partnership that helped his state gain recognition as the nation's leader in using electronic prescriptions to help reduce medical errors and streamline treatment. Whitehouse said the health IT pioneers in his state are a group of physicians -- not government officials -- "who got so frustrated" that they are attempting to engineer electronic health records on their own.

Leavitt responded that there are billions of dollars being invested in health technology "throughout the economy," and the federal government's role is to monitor standards for secure, confidential and compatible e-health systems.

He said the president's health IT budget would help deploy mutually accepted public-private data standards. The money also would go toward creating a non-governmental body to advise on health IT experimental projects in U.S. communities.

Of the total $700 billion HHS is seeking, $15 million would support personalized medicine, where technology is used to coordinate new medical research with patient care.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., drew attention to the exorbitant cost of prescription drugs in the United States. "Why do we pay so much more for drugs than other countries?" he asked Leavitt. Many Americans buy drugs online from other countries because of the price discrepancies.

Leavitt said "the root" of the inequity is a trade problem that falls out of HHS' jurisdiction.

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