OPM looks to federal health plan to promote health IT interoperability

The Office of Personnel Management will promote adoption of interoperable health IT systems by offering incentives to providers in the Federal Employee Health Benefit (FEHB) plan.

OPM Director Linda Springer told lawmakers yesterday that the government would include the ability to make records accessible through secure and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act-compliant IT systems.

Springer and other federal officials testified before the House Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce and Agency Organization about the challenges the federal government faces in convincing the private sector to standardize.

OPM's plan to add incentives is one way the government can use its power to promote health IT interoperability.

Springer and other managers of the 8 million-member FEHB plan told lawmakers that they also can use their purchasing influence to move the nation's health care providers toward adoption of standardized electronic records and interoperable IT platforms.

'We want to use all the purchasing power we have and bring private-sector players together to line up behind certified [IT] products, to line up behind standards and to line up behind the adoption of certain technologies,' said David Brailer, the Health and Human Services Department's national coordinator of health IT, after his appearance before the panel.

It will be a tall order to get the nation's physicians, already burdened with high malpractice insurance premiums, to spend money for new IT systems that meet government standards for electronic records creation, storage and transmission.

'There's a certain amount of fear associated with it,' says David St. Clair, CEO of MEDecision Inc. of Wayne, Pa., a company that develops health management IT systems that manipulate data between patients, doctors and insurance companies. Its clients include 21 Blue Cross/Blue Shield regions, as well as another 40 health plans, for a total 42 million patients'a sizable portion of the market health officials want to convince to move to standardized IT.

'There's an understandable reluctance to be out there to take that risk to try something new,' St. Clair said.

In addition to keeping medical costs high and preventing a clearer picture of the nation's health, the results can be devastating: Physicians that can't access up-to-date or complete patient information can prescribe the wrong medication, which could result in patient injuries and accidental deaths.

'This is about saving lives,' says Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.). 'Approximately 48,000 to 100,000 people in this country die from medical errors, the equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing every three days.'

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