Sebelius Visits Kansas City to Participate in a Health-Information Technology Panel

The administration of President Barack Obama was merely attempting to ensure quality health care for women when it touched off a recent firestorm about contraception, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said Friday in Kansas City, Mo.

In promulgating a rule that contraceptives be part of basic health care coverage offered by insurers, Sebelius said the administration was following the recommendation of the Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit that provides advice to government and business on health matters.

The advice on contraception was part of a range of recommendations for women’s coverage, she said, which included services like domestic violence screening and mental health benefits.

But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, among other religious groups, denounced the fact that religiously affiliated institutions would have to provide coverage that conflicted with their beliefs. With Sebelius at his side, Obama a week ago announced a compromise that said women at these institutions would still have access to the coverage making it clear that insurers would pick up the costs.

“I think the president has made it clear that we think two principles are really important,” Sebelius said. “One is that women across the country should have affordable contraception as a benefit, without copays and coinsurance. And second, that we would respect freedom of religion.”

Sebelius, a Catholic, is a former governor and insurance commissioner in Kansas. She was in Kansas City to participate in a panel discussion on the benefits of health-information technology in terms of the job market and improving medical care.

Metropolitan Community College hosted the event at its Health Science Institute, a $27 million facility that opened two years ago to train health care students in advanced technology.

Asked her view on the upcoming review by the U.S. Supreme Court of the legal challenges to the health reform law, Sebelius said she was “hopeful and confident” the court would find that the law constitutional, within in the purview of the government to regulate interstate commerce.

“No one chooses when to use health care,” she said. “If you have an automobile accident on the highway today, you are going to be taken to an emergency room and admitted to the hospital regardless of whether you have insurance or not. Somebody else picks up that bill if you do not have coverage, but you will access the system.”

Also, drawing on her experience as a governor and insurance commissioner, Sebelius said it was her preference that states design the health insurance exchanges required under the health care reform law.
“I think states should have the primary role,” she said.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback created a stir last year when his administration rejected a $31.5 million federal grant designed to help create an exchange in Kansas. The administration said the grant had too many strings attached.

Sebelius used her appearance on the health-information technology panel to announce the Obama administration’s strides in pushing the health care industry to move away from its paper-based system and to adopt electronic medical records.

She announced new data that said about $3.1 billion in incentive funding from the administration has helped nearly 2,000 hospitals and more than 41,000 doctors achieve “meaningful use” of health information technology. The funding has come through the economic stimulus bill passed in 2009.

According to HHS projections, health information technology jobs are expected to increase by 20 percent from 2008 to 2018.

“This is one of the fastest growing fields in the United States and across the world,” she said during the panel discussion, “and that is why we are here today.”

Among the panelists was Dr. Jennifer Brull, a family practice physician in Plainville. She was an early adopter of electronic medical records. The best thing about having the electronic records, she said, was the ability to chronicle the progress of her patients.

“I can see real improvement,” Brull said, “and I can prove it, because I can measure it.”

Along with Brull was one of her patients, Chuck Comeau, a Plainville businessman. He said Brull’s commitment to high-tech health care helps in recruiting new businesses to town. Executives, he said, were impressed with the health care available in the small town.

Health information technology, he said, “has a whole economic development component to it that I don’t think people think about.”

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