Infrastructure, committee changes are health IT focal points as congressional power dynamics shift

You won’t see candidates running on a heavy health IT platform, but the industry could benefit from a congressional shift in power that creates an opportunity to focus on infrastructure and new entrants looking for bipartisan wins.

Infrastructure is a key area that health IT groups plan to focus on following Tuesday’s midterm elections in which Democrats took control of the House and Republicans strengthened their grasp on the Senate. While both the Trump administration and Democrats have long advocated for comprehensive infrastructure reform, there hasn’t been much momentum. But the issue could resurface with more strength over the next two years as both parties search for bipartisan wins in a split Congress.

For health IT advocates, a new infrastructure package means a focus on things like broadband and public health surveillance that directly impact telehealth and data collection—smaller issues that could fit into broader legislation.

“You have a lot of new members coming into the House and a lot of centrist Democrats coming in from red or purple states, and that really presents an opportunity,” Samantha Burch, senior director of Congressional Affairs at HIMSS, told FierceHealthcare.

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That includes issues around cybersecurity that represent a less tangible but necessary component of modern infrastructure, said Leslie Krigstein, vice president of congressional affairs at the College of Health Information Management Executives (CHIME).

That follows a gradual shift on the Hill, where health IT legislation is increasingly wrapped into larger bills like the 21st Century Cures Act or the recent opioids spending package rather than languishing as standalone bills. Health IT issues generally receive bipartisan support, and Burch says it's especially attractive in situations in which Congress wants to achieve some policy goals that don’t require a huge amount of money.

“Our goal is to come in on the health IT side and say, ‘It’s not just our roads and bridges that are crumbling,’” Burch said, adding that she’s “learned not to put odds” on new legislation but expects incoming Democrats to make infrastructure a priority.

Generally, HIMSS’ policy priorities won’t shift much with the House turning blue. In addition to ensuring that health IT is part of any infrastructure package, the group remains focused on cybersecurity. But the broader shift will create some interesting new dynamics on House oversight committees, including the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, which is overseeing the agency’s EHR replacement. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., who serves as the committee’s ranking member, was elected as Minnesota’s governor on Tuesday, leaving Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the likely replacement as chairman.   

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Krigstein said she’ll be keeping a close eye on the significant roster changes across the House and Senate committees where leadership drives the agenda.

21st Century Cures implementation will continue to be a bipartisan focal point, with pending rules on information blocking and interoperability set to drop any day now. Privacy and security are likely to be a pressing theme regardless of how new committees take shape, and Krigstein expects consumer privacy to have a "day of reckoning" in front of Congress, which will have some healthcare offshoots. 

“With the proliferation of data, and the blurring of the consumer and health data lines, this issue is certain to get a lot of consideration,” she said.

Behind the scenes, HIMSS will be working to get more than 70 new members of the House and Senate up to speed on health IT priorities.

“The first thing I always think about is just the sheer education need and just how much of next year is going to be spent in education in order to get these other things across the finish line,” Burch said