KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - After some convincing, the U.S. health care industry has been moving more toward online record keeping, thanks in part to about $3 billion in federal stimulus funds, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Friday.
Sebelius said nearly 2,000 hospitals and more than 41,000 doctors have received a share of the $3.1 billion in incentive payments for health information technology. The funds, administered through Medicare and Medicaid, were made available under the 2009 federal Recovery Act.
"We have in our health care system an industry that is 17 percent of our GDP in this country, and yet up until recently has relied on paper files," Sebelius said during a roundtable discussion with health information technology professionals and health care providers at the Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley Health Science Institute in Kansas City.
"But the health system has been particularly resistant to technology changes," she said. "So what we're talking about is really a transformational change that's under way.'
The percentage of U.S. hospitals that have adopted electronic health records systems has gone from 16 percent in 2009 to 35 percent in 2011, Sebelius said. The administration has also created a nationwide network of 62 regional centers to provide technical guidance and resources to help health care providers participate in the programs, particularly small medical practices and smaller hospitals that "don't have big IT departments," she said
Health care informational technology jobs are a growing employment sector, and are expected to increase by 20 percent from 2008 to 2018, she said.
"What we know, health information technology can really improve health care. It can help doctors and nurses and the health team coordinate care," she said. "Electronic records can help reduce costs, cut out paperwork, (and) provide for more continuity along the way."
Sebelius also said electronic patient records may ultimately be more secure than paper copies.
"I think that it is more feasible to build in security walls in an electronic system than it may ever be in a paper system," she said.
Dr. Jennifer Brull, a family practice doctor in northwest Kansas who participated in the discussion, said she has been using health information technology applications in her practice, including electronic health records and a patient portal that allows patients access to their health records.
"The big win isn't the money I get (from the government). It isn't having a computer in my office," Brull said. "It's about the fact that I can see real improvement in my patients' care, and I can prove it because we can measure it, which is something that you really couldn't do in the old world of paper."
Sebelius also defended the Obama administration's recent proposal requiring that employees of religion-affiliated institutions have access to birth control coverage. Catholics and other religious groups strongly protested the original ruling that mandated religion-affiliated institutions such as hospitals and universities include free birth control coverage in their health plans. The churches themselves were exempted from the requirement.
Last week, Obama modified the policy so insurance companies, and not the church-affiliated organizations, pay for birth control.
In brief remarks to the media after the roundtable, Sebelius said, "We think two principles are really important. One is that women across the country should have affordable, available contraception as a preventive service without copays and co-insurance, and secondly, that we want to respect freedom of religion, and so employers who have objection will not have to pay for, will not have to refer people, will not have to purchase contraceptive coverage.
"But the women who work for those institutions will have an opportunity to access those benefits," she said.