Health matters garner congressional gaze

With more than $12 billion already committed to provider and hospital payments under the Medicare and Medicaid EHR Incentive Programs, health policy authorities expect that key Senate and House committees with jurisdiction over health matters will ramp up their oversight of the programs' implementation.

The Congressional Affairs Panel, held March 4 at the 2013 HIMSS Annual Conference and Exhibition in New Orleans, added weight to that premise. The panel featured policy experts and congressional staff members who engaged in a discussion of current national and state legislation affecting healthcare and health IT.

Panelists agreed that bipartisan support remains strong for HITECH Act implementation. However, the program has become so large and so visible that elected officials on both sides of the aisle are starting question whether the incentives are delivering positive results.

At the same time, March 1 signaled the beginning of the government's budget-cutting sequestration measures. Joel White, who served as health director on the Health Subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee, noted that the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT is expected to suffer a $1 million budget cut as a result of sequestration, while the Office for Civil Rights will lose about $2 million from its budget.

White made another prediction about imminent action from Congress that would impact the healthcare community. He forecasted that the Department of Health & Human Services "…is going to release rules extending Stark anti-kickback safe harbors here at [HIMSS13]…It's an important issue because with those rules you can push out standards to business practices and interoperability requirements that [will] help on the political front with Congress in their oversight of budget votes.

Charlene MacDonald, a senior policy advisor and legislative director to Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), said Schwartz, an influential voice on national health policy, is working on legislation that would address the nation's physician shortfall, as well as proposed alternatives to the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula used to establish physicians' payments under Medicare.

MacDonald said Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nevada) an osteopathic physician, introduced the SGR-alternative legislation, the Medicare Physician Payment Innovation Act, on Feb. 6.

Link to Joe Heck: