Analysis: HHS health IT program is the right start

By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor

To the casual observer of government and how it works, the latest move by the Department of Health and Human Services to launch a temporary program certifying electronic health records may seem routine, said Dr. John Loonsk, former director of interoperability and standards in the Office of the National Coordinator.

“This is a small step. This is a final rule for a temporary program and eventually there needs to be a temporary rule for the final program and a final rule for the final program, et cetera, et cetera.”

But, Loonsk told the Federal Drive, this may just be the kick in the scrub pants the medical community needs to make EHR a reality. The process, said Loonsk, had been “stymied to some extent by the entrenched interests of health care, by much more complicated business issues and confidentiality issues in health care and that there was a need for the federal government to step in to try to move this area forward.”

Funding, coming from the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 has been “creating a lot of buzz” in the medical IT community, said Loonsk. “There’s as much as $34 billion dollars associated with implementing Electronic Medical Records, those dollars going out to physicians and hospitals to do so.”

The general big picture, said Loonsk, is that the stimulus included a significant number of dollars to encourage physicians and hospitals to implement EHR. “Certification is used to test, to ensure that those electronic medical records do what they’re expected to do, they’ll work with other systems, and that they will be secure and protect patient data.”

Loonsk told Federal News Radio there are many systems being used, but the point of the HHS program is to start to get the systems that are reliable and get them to work together. “What some have been concerned about is not so much this process that’s articulated in this latest regulation, it’s… the content that’s going to be tested to and does it go far enough to ensure that the systems will work with each other adequately to get to the next steps in interoperability and then to be most useful for health care.”

Loonsk noted there are other concerns as well. Other health domains including labs, pharmacies, home health organizations, long term care, and public health are not addressed. In addition, “many patients are particularly concerned about their health information being used for commercial purposes.”

While those are matters to be addressed at some point, Loonsk said the federal government is the right starting point for bringing the process together.

“Over 40% of all health care is touched by a federal agency, and so if they implement these standards aggressively, that can help pull the private sector along.”

Dr. John Loonsk is a former director of interoperability and standards in the Office of the National Coordinator. He’s now with CGI Federal.

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