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HHS Nominee Sebelius Calls Health IT a “Linchpin” of Health Reform

Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, Obama’s nominee for HHS Secretary, expressed her commitment to health information technology Tuesday calling it a “linchpin” of health care reform, during a confirmation hearing that buffeted her with questions on the issue. Health IT was clearly a “hot topic” during Gov. Sebelius‘ hearing; that emphasis stood in marked contrast to former Senator Daschle’s confirmation hearing when he was up for the job back in January. Daschle had widely promoted health IT at that time, and the issue was squarely on the table (the economic stimulus legislation was under consideration).

Yet, members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Tuesday took on a noticeably heightened interest in health IT during Gov. Sebelius‘ hearing, probing her on her ideas for health IT and her understanding of the myriad issues surrounding its adoption and implementation. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), was particularly sharp in her questions and pointedly asked Sebelius how she would avoid a “techno Katrina” – i.e., billions of dollars being spent for health IT with little to no progress made in achieving widespread implementation. Mikulski also vehemently stressed the need for Sebelius herself to be a real leader on health IT issues and not to rely just on the work of Dr. David Blumenthal, the new National Coordinator for Health IT.

So why the new enthusiasm for health IT during Tuesday’s hearing? Perhaps the Committee was testing out a somewhat untested Washington outsider on her knowledge of this ever growing, important issue. And of course, the firm federal commitment to spend $19 billion to support the adoption of electronic health records and the development of the National Health Information Network was a factor as well.

Back Up and Push

The economic stimulus legislation was enacted six weeks ago, and we’ve been waiting even longer to hear who will fill the position of HHS Secretary. Those of us who work on health IT and privacy issues know that the Secretary must play a critical role in health IT adoption and implementation – along with Dr. Blumenthal — so it is exciting to (finally!) hear from the individual who will, pending confirmation, take the reigns on these issues. Gov. Sebelius seems sincerely committed to playing an active role in HHS‘ health IT efforts. She expressed the need for national standards that would allow hospitals, physicians’ offices, and other entities, in both urban and rural areas, to develop systems that “speak to one another.” She also stressed the need for health IT efforts to be done “right,” and appeared confident that with the help of Dr. Blumenthal, this was entirely achievable.

CDT is pleased about Gov. Sebelius‘ commitment to be actively involved in health IT efforts and hopes she will bring the same dedication to making sure there is a culture of robust of information sharing going on that will improve our health care while also implementing comprehensive privacy and security protections for electronic personal health information.