In a key step toward developing a proposed U.S. health information technology (HIT) infrastructure, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has announced that Iowa’s Medicaid program is the first to receive federal matching funds for planning activities necessary to implement the electronic health record (EHR) incentive program established by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA).

 

ARRA was signed into law by President Obama on February 17, 2009. Among its various parts, ARRA includes provisions for the improvement of our nation’s health care through health information technology (also known as Health IT or HIT), Medicare and Medicaid Health IT provisions which provide incentives and support for the adoption of certified electronic health records (EHRs); and provisions to expand, enforce, and enhance the privacy and security safeguards required by HIPAA. The proposed goal of a switch to EHRs is to improve the quality of health care for individuals, make care more efficient by making it easier for providers treating a patient to coordinate care, and make it easier for individual patients to access the information they need to make decisions about their own health care. Responsibility for implementing this program falls to the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, a position currently filled by Dr. David Blumenthal at the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”). In furtherance of this goal, Mr. Blumenthal recently announced $80 million in grants to develop a HIT workforce. Additionally, the HHS has created a helpful website on the topic of health information technology with links to resources on privacy issues.

In discussing the approximately $1.16 million in federal matching funds Iowa will receive, Cindy Mann, director of the Center for Medicaid and State Operations at CMS said, “While Iowa is the first state to receive approval of its plan for implementing the Recovery Act’s EHR incentive program, a number of other states have submitted plans as well, meaningful and interoperable use of EHRs in Medicaid will increase health care efficiency, reduce medical errors and improve quality-outcomes and patient satisfaction within and across the states.”   As the first state to receive federal funding, Iowa will use the funds to focus on planning, information gathering, analysis, and assessment with respect HIT and the use of EHR within the state.  

A HIT Infrastructure is likely to raise a range of new issues involving the handling of sensitive personal information. For instance, anytime extensive personal and medical information is placed in electronic form, the chance of a data breach or information misuse rises significantly. This is especially true given the recent growth in the area of medical identity theft. Additionally, as some commentators have reported, physicians, hospitals, and clinics have all expressed concerns regarding the technical feasibility of the system, potential for patient mix-ups, as well as the extensive cost to make the switch to EHR. How such a system would affect employers and group health plan administration remains unclear.  

With such an emphasis on a switch to EHR, and billions of federal dollars fueling the conversion, all businesses, particularly health care providers, need to be consider how they will be affected by the new HIT infrastructure.