Government to spearhead creation of e-healthcare system

New panel tasked with overseeing creation of digital health records system.

To achieve an interoperable system of e-health records, the government said Monday it will spearhead the advancement of a national electronic healthcare system with input from the healthcare community and private industry.

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt announced at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society summit in New York the formation of a 17-member advisory panel that will serve as a governing body to guide the health care transformation.

He also will issue requests for proposals to create processes for establishing and harmonizing data standards, technical certification and an architecture to develop an Internet-based health information exchange. A final request will be to assess patient privacy and security policies.

"Once the market has structure, patients, providers, medical professionals and vendors will innovate, create efficiencies and improve care," Leavitt said in a statement.

Under a two-year charter, the advisory panel, called the American Health Information Community (AHIC), will be chaired by Leavitt and comprised of private and public players. Among its tasks, the panel will be charged with making recommendations that ensure privacy and security protections, to prioritize health IT achievements and to develop a product certification process. The charter can be renewed for a maximum of five years, after which it will be completely transferred to the private sector.

"Putting the secretary's own prestige and leadership behind it" sends a strong signal that this is a top priority, said David Lansky, director of Connecting for Health. President Bush has called for a nationwide system of interoperable e-health records by 2014.

Connecting for Health has promoted the inclusion privacy policies and security practices, Lansky said, which "seem to be reflected in the steps HHS intends to take."

The timing of the proposal requests is also on target. "We are a point in time that the standards themselves are not going to work themselves out their own," said eHealth Initiative CEO Janet Marchibroda. "He is coming out of the gate recognizing how important this is, and we are very encouraged by it," she added.

But "what was missing [from Leavitt's announcement] was this notion that we are going to need incentives" to fully adopt an interoperable system of e-health records, Marchibroda said. In his capacity at the department, Leavitt has the leverage to provide incentives through Medicare modernization. "We see this as a two-stepper," she said.

Funding for three of the requests will come from a fiscal 2005 reprogramming budget of $86.5 million, of which $50 million has been earmarked for regional health care initiatives. President Bush has requested $125 million for health IT in fiscal 2006.

"The actions announced today build on the evaluation and strategies that we have developed with the broad community of health care leaders," said David Brailer, national coordinator for health information technology, in a statement.

On Friday, Brailer's office released a report summarizing more than 5,000 pages of industry comments on how to build a nationwide e-health exchange, including how it should be governed, operated and financed.