House lawmakers push Sebelius to reduce health disparities

By Diana Manos
08:06 AM

If you're serious about fighing health disparities, why not use everything weapon in your arsenal?

That's the question some members of Congress are posing to HHS.

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), and 22 of their colleagues wrote a letter this week to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services administrator Marilyn Tavenner and national coordinator for health IT Karen DeSalvo expressing their support for leveraging health information technology advances to reduce health disparities.

The House members provided recommendations to the administration about integrating disparity reduction opportunities in Stage 3 of the meaningful use incentive program and encouraged the administration to look at key tenets of the Consumer Partnership for eHealth’s Disparities Action Plan for guidance. 

At the Meaningful Use Workgroup on Tuesday, several workgroup members acknowledged the letter, saying it is something they can’t ignore.

“As a health care provider, I’ve seen firsthand the devastating impact on families and communities when they don’t get access to the kind of care they need and deserve,” Capps said in a prepared statement. “We know that reducing healthcare costs and improving health outcomes depends on tackling the pervasive problem of health disparities. I hope the Administration seizes this opportunity to help reduce current disparities and make a difference for millions of patients and families.”   

[See also: Breaking out of the EHR box.]

“We must use all the tools available to achieve health equity in our country,” Takano said. “The only way to eliminate health disparities is to fully understand the scope of the problems faced by individuals and communities, especially LGBT people. Breakthroughs in health information technology and improved data collection in the ‘meaningful use’ guidelines can be a powerful tool to improve healthcare for all Americans, and I urge the ONC to make the constructive changes we have identified.”

The lawmakers are asking HHS to:

1. Improve data collection. Meaningful Use should adopt more comprehensive and inclusive standards of data collection developed by HHS, similar to what the Census uses, in order to better recognize, track, understand and reduce disparities, including collection of disability status, sexual orientation and gender identity variables.

2. Improve data use. Data collected by EHRs should stratify patients' health status by disparity in order to facilitate improvements in care and health status among these vulnerable populations.

3. Improve health literacy and communication. EHR software should have the functionality to enable providers to improve health literacy and communication. This can be done by displaying communications for patients at a reading level no higher than sixth to eighth grade level, use common terminology rather than medical jargon whenever possible and be accessible to those with visual, hearing, cognitive and communication impairments.

4. Improve access. Smartphones can provide critical access to health information and health care in underserved communities. Many underserved populations rely on smartphones instead of computers. Consequently, Meaningful Use should ensure that patients can access their own health information through mobile platforms.

See also:

Consumer coalition proposes disparities reduction plan for Stage 3

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Interoperability: Pockets of progress

CIOs urge rural providers to consider gov't funding options