The full Senate could vote as early as this week on the nomination of Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) to be Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In January, two Senate Committees held hearings on Rep. Price’s nomination. These hearings focused largely on Rep. Price’s stance on repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and on reform of the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Senators asked few questions related to health information technology, and the limited discussion on this topic centered primarily on the burdens placed on providers by HHS initiatives to promote the “meaningful use” of electronic health records (EHRs).
During the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing, Rep. Price suggested that the federal government’s role with respect to EHRs should be to facilitate interoperability. Rep. Price expressed concern over the negative impact of certain health IT efforts on provider productivity and said that HHS’s meaningful use final rules were the “final straw” for many physicians. He also stated that HHS must identify metrics for quality measurement that “actually correlate with the quality of care that’s being provided, as opposed to so many things that are required right now” that result in providers “wasting their time” on documentation.
Rep. Price expressed similar concerns regarding the meaningful use program and regulatory burdens on providers during his nomination hearing before the Senate Finance Committee. He stated during that hearing, however, that “we are missing the boat” from “a technological perspective” in rural areas and at critical access hospitals because we have “put up roadblocks to the expansion of technology . . . .” Rep. Price suggested that HHS should incentivize the expansion of technology in rural areas, and he alluded to the use of telemedicine for that purpose.
Rep. Price’s comments on the burdens of IT requirements on providers are consistent with proposals he put forth during his time in Congress. During the last Congress, for example, Rep. Price introduced two bills to shield providers from health IT related requirements: The Medical Practice Freedom Act, H.R. 3100, would have prohibited HHS and States from conditioning a provider’s licensure on compliance with “any requirements relating to the meaningful use” of EHRs; and the Meaningful Use Hardship Relief Act, H.R. 3940, would have authorized a blanket “significant hardship exception” from certain federal meaningful use requirements.
If Representative Price is confirmed, it remains to be seen how he will approach many health IT-related issues as Secretary of HHS. To the extent he has discretion to do so, Rep. Price could seek to scale back meaningful use requirements or to permit additional exceptions from those requirements. However, the lack of focus on health IT during Rep. Price’s confirmation hearings may suggest that health IT efforts could be overshadowed in the coming months by Congressional and Administration focus on reforms to the ACA, Medicare, and Medicaid.