Senate is expected to restore health IT funds

David Brailer, health IT czar at the Health and Human Services Department, said he is encouraged by the direction Congress is taking.

The Health and Human Services Department's health IT initiative will likely get full funding next year after all.

The Senate Appropriations Committee had cut $30 million from the president's request for health IT, but the initiative to create a national health IT network enjoys bipartisan support and is an administration priority. Even in a tight budget year, lawmakers probably will restore the funds, a committee staff member said.

Senate appropriators had cited a budget crunch in taking $30 million out of the president's $75 million request for HHS' Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT. The initiative, being funded under a $145.7 billion spending bill for HHS, the Labor and Education departments and other related agencies, was vying with such programs as community health centers and drug-free schools and services to low-income households.

'I would anticipate that there's a strong possibility that we would have a floor amendment,' which would restore funds that were cut from the request, said a staff member, who did not wish to be identified.

The staff member cited the wide support for the health IT initiatives and the fact that the House fully funded it.

Overall, the Senate committee recommended $95.2 million for health IT programs, compared with the $125 million President Bush requested and which the House ap- proved. Additionally, HHS' Agency for Health Research and Quality would receive $50 million under the House bill and the Senate Appropriations recommendation to un- derwrite health IT demonstration projects.

Iron out differences

Once the Senate has voted on the appropriations, the Senate and House must iron out their differences in conference.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) last month introduced the Health Technology to Enhance Quality Act, or Health TEQ, which codifies the national health IT czar's office and its programs, and calls for $125 million in annual HHS health IT funding.

Losing the $30 million would slow the development of a national health IT infrastructure to support the electronic exchange of patient health records, experts said.

The fiscal 2006 funding would support a variety of major efforts by national Health IT coordinator David Brailer's office, including the development of interoperability standards, a national health information infrastructure and prototypes for a health information network and to harmonize state privacy regulations.

The health IT czar's office also provides seed money for projects to support the national network initiative'among them the creation of the American Health Information Community, which will guide the rollout of national health IT interoperability standards.

Full funding is essential to achieve electronic health records within 10 years, said Janet Marchibroda, CEO of the eHealth Initiative, a nonprofit organization that includes providers, standards groups and software companies, among others.

Critical funding

'Funding to connect our nation's electronic infrastructure is a critical step, and the money requested is a drop in the bucket in comparison to returns it will bring in achievable savings,' she said.

Studies show that more effective medical care can save lives, and as much as $78 billion annually, she said.

The Appropriations staff member said lawmakers on the committee were faced with the problem of accommodating many priorities in the spending bill.

'Part of the problem is that we were given a president's request that had increases for presidential priorities, like health IT and community health centers, and really had a lot of cuts in priorities that were important to certain senators. So there were places where the Senate priorities don't completely mirror that of the president, and we were faced with filling holes basically. It's a tough balancing act,' the staff member said.

Despite the reductions, the Senate committee's recommendation was an increase over last year, the first year of the health IT initiative. Congress initially appropriated no 2005 funds for the national health IT office, but later approved a $32.8 million reprogramming request for Brailer's office.

'Congress is heading in the right direction on this type of funding,' Brailer said, 'and we are encouraged by all the recent activity in Congress on health IT, specifically the depth of knowledge and understanding of the value that health IT can bring to health care.'

Reinstating the reduction will depend a lot on when the HHS, Labor and Education spending bill reaches the Senate floor, the staff member said.

It is likely that the Supreme Court nomination will su-percede the spending bill schedule.

Also, lawmakers are scheduled to leave town Aug. 1 for the summer recess, returning Sept. 6. There is only a slight chance that the Senate would vote on the bill this week.

Combining bills

If Congress does not complete its appropriations work in the fall, several spending bills could be wrapped into an omnibus spending bill.

'With an omnibus bill, in my experience, there is more activity by the White House because several bills are being negotiated at the same time,' the staff member said.

A greater White House involvement would likely mean that funds would be directed toward its priorities, such as health IT, the staff member added.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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