HHS inches toward building health-IT infrastructure

Members of a government-led but voluntary effort to build a far-reaching health infrastructure in the U.S. have established a series of goals and recommendations designed to eventually make a nationwide system a reality.

The recommendations, which came out of a meeting of the National Health Infrastructure Initiative last week, ranged from the simple to the ambitious – one working group called for US$10 billion in federal government incentives to ease the adoption of technology.

Still, other goals, including supporting demonstration projects and encouraging the use of certain standards, are achievable in the short term, according to William Yasnoff, a senior U.S. Department of Health and Human Services official who is also the NHII’s senior advisor.

“In general, the recommendations are very helpful and very positive, and they deal with things that are very, very clear,” Yasnoff said. “Now that I have a pile of recommendations on my desk, I have lots and lots of work to do. There’s a tremendous amount of enthusiasm. I think that the Secretary (HHS chief Tommy Thompson) is very impatient about this issue. He’s been pushing on this and would like to see results. We’re trying as hard as we can to try to push these issues forward.”

The NHII lives within HHS, and though Yasnoff emphasized that the group is a voluntary effort, it’s clear that the endeavor has the attention and support of the highest levels of the department. Tommy Thompson gave the keynote at the meeting, capturing the spotlight by announcing plans to come up with a standardized electronic medical record and HHS’ move to license and make freely available the SNOMED terms.

“You may ask why we’re providing it for free,” Thompson said. “We’re providing it for free because we want you to use it.”

The meeting marks the beginning of what is envisioned as a 10-year process to make the infrastructure a reality.

“Everyone has agreed that this NHII should be voluntary as opposed to being HIPAA II – another regulatory mandate,” Yasnoff said. “If it’s going to be voluntary then the idea was to bring together the volunteers and figure out what you’re really going to be volunteering for.”

Still, the future of the effort remains hazy. “There are only two things for sure that are going to happen. There are going to be quarterly reports and there are going to be lots more meetings,” Yasnoff said. The NHII isn’t currently funded in the budget, though a small amount – $3 million – has been requested by the president for the 2004 fiscal year for NHII coordination.

Yasnoff remains optimistic. “We have no indication that anyone is interested in diminishing this.”