Kennedy championed health IT, HIPAA

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) was an unlikely champion of health IT. As the second-most-senior member of the august body known as the U.S. Senate, you'd think that he wouldn't understand newfangled gizmos like electronic medical records, but he apparently did. It was his Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that approved the net $19.2 billion in federal EMR stimulus funding before the bill went to a vote before the full Senate, after all.

Kennedy, who died late Tuesday at 77, was known as an advocate for health reform, going way back to the original passage of Medicare in 1965. Through his 47 years in the Senate, he regularly stood behind any legislation he believed would advance the cause of providing better care to more people. (Sure, some might deride him as a socialist, as a champion of bloated government bureaucracy, but let's leave that debate for another time. The man just died.)

Think back to the mid-1990s, shortly after the failure of the Clinton administration's attempt at healthcare reform. Pulled from the ashes of "HillaryCare" were some smaller ideas that had much broader support than the government-run health system that President Bill Clinton had proposed. Among them was the notion that health insurance should be portable so people who change jobs wouldn't have gaps in coverage while waiting to qualify for their new company's health plan.

Enter Kennedy and Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), two people with little in common politically other than their support for insurance portability. Back then, legislation that we now know as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, or HIPAA, was popularly known as the Kennedy-Kassebaum bill. Months of negotiations on Capitol Hill added Title II to the law, the part that deals with privacy and security of electronic health information as well as electronic healthcare transactions, the National Provider Identifier and a few other provisions that have become all too familiar to anyone in health IT or healthcare administration.

It took a bipartisan effort to get HIPAA enacted, and bringing ideologically opposed people together over specific issues was Kennedy's forte. The trait got passed on to the next generation, as his son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), started and co-chaired the 21st Century Healthcare Caucus with Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) to advocate for health IT.

Washington could use a whole lot more of that spirit right now.

Rest in peace, Senator. - Neil