Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has a history with healthcare. His second filed piece of legislation was the National Health IT Advancement Act of 2007, and he recently introduced a bill promoting health IT responsibility and transparency. Healthcare Dive, in a new feature called Healthcare Influencers, asked the senator about his interest in healthcare, how he got involved in the issues, and where he sees the future going. Questions and answers were conducted over email.
Healthcare Dive: How did you get interested in healthcare and the health IT environment?
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse: During my time as attorney general for Rhode Island, I learned healthcare providers and agencies too often operate in silos – pursuing excellent work, but failing to share best practices or discuss potential problems across the industry. In response, I helped found the Rhode Island Quality Institute (RIQI), an organization aimed at bringing people together to improve the quality and performance of our healthcare system. Among RIQI’s first projects was to help hospitals reduce facility-acquired infections in adult ICUs. We also got to work on e-prescribing and designing a statewide EHR. Today, RIQI runs one of the most robust statewide HIEs in the country.
When I got to the Senate, my second piece of legislation was the National Health IT Advancement Act of 2007, which aimed to curtail dangerous, costly medical errors while reducing health costs and improving care. In 2009, I was proud to secure new investments for health IT through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, including a provision to establish “Beacon Communities” to support communities, like Rhode Island, that already made inroads in the adoption of EHRs. It’s an issue I’m passionate about because I see the enormous potential for improved care and lower costs if we can get it right.
You recently introduced a bill along with Sen. Bill Cassidy calling for greater health IT transparency and interoperability. Can you describe why that is such an important issue in the health IT market, the healthcare industry at large and for patients?
Whitehouse: Right now, after a health IT product is certified for use, there’s no way to ensure that it continues to deliver as promised for doctors and patients, and no way to easily compare one product to another. The TRUST IT Act establishes important safeguards that will hold health IT systems accountable for their performance, which will improve market competition and drive innovation. Providers will have a patient’s information in a user-friendly format, readily available, allowing for new fluidity during the information and exchange process.
Why is a rating system needed for health IT products?
Whitehouse: We need a consumer-friendly way for healthcare providers to compare health IT products so they can make informed decisions when purchasing their products. Doctors are great at being doctors; they’re not all great at IT evaluation. A rating system will hold health IT systems accountable for their performance by requiring all vendors to report on the performance of their products every two years.
Federal regulation and healthcare policy, especially in recent years, greatly affect the industry and the perception of the industry at large. How do you see healthcare policy affecting and/or growing alongside the industry in coming years?
Whitehouse: Our healthcare system is constantly changing, and with change come new policy challenges. We need to address cost and affordability in healthcare beyond the ACA, from drug prices to out-of-pocket costs. I’d also like to see the Obama administration, or the next president, announce a specific cost-savings goal for the delivery system reforms contained within the ACA. On another front, we’ll soon be implementing the new Medicare payment system to replace the disastrous Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula. That will hopefully keep health costs down and spare doctors the yearly cost-hike threats generated by the SGR.
What is your opinion on recent measures attempting to repeal the ACA’s Cadillac tax?
Whitehouse: I am open to improvements of the ACA but if significant changes are made to its funding mechanisms, they generally should be offset by other sources of revenue. One might be financial penalties on states that are high cost outliers in the Medicare program.
Do you have any closing thoughts for anyone interested getting into politics and/or healthcare policy?
Whitehouse: America spends 50% more of its GDP on healthcare than our nearest rival in the developed world, yet our life expectancy is shorter than countries that spend far less. In closing that gap, there are vast opportunities for problem-solvers. In achieving that goal, we will set our country on a more stable fiscal path and establish a fairer and more effective healthcare system for our fellow citizens. That, in my view, is a challenge worth accepting.