A remedy for healthcare

In the wake of the midterm elections, lawmakers have returned to Washington to complete the work of the 109th session. We hope that this “lame-duck” session defies convention and advances effective and necessary legislation.

In the wake of the midterm elections, lawmakers have returned to Washington to complete the work of the 109th session. We hope that this “lame-duck” session defies convention and advances effective and necessary legislation.

A key priority of this session, as well as that of the 110th Congress, should undoubtedly be healthcare. It currently consumes a quarter of the federal budget, and unless we act now to transform the system, health costs will explode in the coming years to unimaginable levels. The $2 trillion we spend every year in healthcare is nearly 20 percent of our entire economy. And most importantly, throughout this year’s campaigns and most assuredly continuing through those of 2008, the American people have made it clear that healthcare is their top domestic issue.

Americans cite rising healthcare costs as their most pressing financial problem, more than energy costs and taxes combined — even more than the “lack of money,” according to a recent Gallup poll. Coupled with that, the average American risks one medication error every day that the person is in a hospital, according to the Institute of Medicine, and 45 million citizens have no health insurance.

Despite its failures our health system remains unchanged, with no real efforts to change it. The waning days of the 109th Congress, as well as the next session, should be devoted to real change.

To help transform health, Congress should pass legislation on health information technology before it adjourns. Modernizing the delivery and administration of healthcare through information technology is critical to improving quality and reducing costs. Over the past two years, more than 20 health IT bills have been introduced. The time to act is now.

The Senate has passed S. 1418, the Wired for Health Care Quality Act, and the House has passed H.R. 4157, the Health Information Technology Promotion Act. The two chambers should produce a conference bill that will: outline the federal government’s role in developing technical data standards, including deadlines for action; provide meaningful incentives to spur provider adoption of technology; create workable relief from Stark and anti-kickback statutes so that hospitals and other organizations can collaborate with physicians on health IT; and direct HHS to move to ICD-10 coding, despite its complexity, within a reasonable timeframe to ensure that technology captures accurate information.

These bipartisan bills demand the attention of lawmakers. Having passed both chambers by wide margins, there is no reasonable excuse to not pass a meaningful conference bill. Political calculations must take a back seat to the real-world benefits of wider adoption of health information technology.

And what are these benefits? Better health and lower costs. Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta reduced medication errors by nearly 90 percent through the implementation of health IT. If we could achieve the same results nationwide, we would save more than 6,000 Americans every year, since medication errors kill nearly 7,500 citizens annually, according to the Institute of Medicine.

Health information technology, such as electronic health records, also helps us move toward a greater focus on wellness and prevention, which undoubtedly saves lives and saves money. For instance, PeaceHealth, a major hospital system with facilities in the Pacific Northwest, built a sophisticated electronic health record system. The results? In addition to significant cost savings, the combination of cutting-edge technology, online disease management tools, and the involvement of diabetes educators helped triple its patients’ compliance rate with diabetic guidelines. Plus, hemoglobin A1c levels of less than 7, the target level for diabetes control, improved from 44 percent in 2001 to more than 60 percent last year.

These numbers are significant. If left unchecked, diabetes threatens to overwhelm our system. Every year there are 1.5 million new cases of diabetes. It contributes to over 200,000 deaths and costs the system more than $132 billion. If the results that PeaceHealth documented for people with diabetes were seen nationwide, we would save thousands of lives and billions of dollars every year. And there are thousands of other examples where technology has saved lives and saved money.

Health information technology can transform health and healthcare to deliver more choices of greater quality at lower cost to every American. But tethered to a 1950s model of clipboards and filing cabinets, we will never be able to withstand the challenges of the 21st century.

The Congress can help modernize our system by passing a meaningful conference bill. Democrats are understandably eager to take control in the 110th Congress and advance their own health agenda, including health IT. But the change in power in Congress should not pose an artificial threat to the passing of meaningful legislation; thwarting progress is the purview of neither party. The incoming leadership should not put their excitement before the interests of the American people by scuttling legislation that has passed both chambers. Democrats should embrace this opportunity to pass bipartisan legislation that will improve healthcare for all Americans.

Gingrich, former House Speaker, is founder of the Center for Health Transformation. Merritt is a project director at the center. Piedmont Hospital is a member of the center.