Officials discuss policy, politics of health IT

Executive order encouraging health agencies to standardize IT systems is a major step, HHS secretary says.

The American health industry is slowly embracing behavioral changes and the deployment of technologies that will help make it more efficient and competitive, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said Tuesday.

At a health information technology summit, Leavitt said an executive order issued by President Bush last month to promote healthcare efficiency and IT use within the federal government was a major step because it involves the largest and most important player in the health sector. He said the order sends a message to the rest of the industry that the federal government is committed to changing its behavior in marketing and procuring health care.

According to Leavitt, the progress of health IT legislation has not been delayed by a lack of interest on Capitol Hill but rather by an influx of interest in the issue. The interest has generated numerous bills on the topic.

"I would argue it's not a lack of political will," he said. "I would argue that it's an abundance of political will."

Leavitt also said sociology, not technology, is preventing the industry from moving forward. But he said he is optimistic about creating a system predicated on "value-based competition."

"I believe this is a very important moment in healthcare history," he said. "I say that because all the components of change are in place."

In a separate address at the summit, Intel Chairman Craig Barrett said the healthcare industry is lagging behind others in America that have deployed technology to make themselves more competitive. "Fundamentally, this industry is moving at glacial speed," he said.

Those with purchasing power have to provide incentives for the adoption of technology because the healthcare industry is incapable of modifying itself as it is, according to Barrett. He said the debate cannot be about who pays for the changes, and there is a pressing need for a performance-based system that stimulates competition. "I don't think the current situation, status quo, is acceptable," Barrett said.

Pollsters Mark Mellman of the Mellman Group and Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies also addressed the conference. Both said all signs indicate that this year's election will not be friendly to incumbents and that health IT is unlikely to be an issue that will help candidates score political points.

Mellman said part of the frustration among voters with the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress can be attributed to the performance of the economy, and the affordability of quality health care is a major common concern. But he said health IT is a tricky issue to communicate to voters. Now-New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine learned that last year when he made a health IT plan part of his campaign platform, Mellman added.

According to McInturff, it is particularly difficult for candidates to communicate the urgency of health IT issues without being overly critical of hospitals and health organizations that can be valuable allies during a campaign.