Medical e-records bill clears Senate

By Kate Nash: The New Mexican

After trying for three legislative sessions, Sen. Peter Wirth was able Tuesday to get a majority of state senators to agree to a measure allowing patients and doctors to use electronic medical records.

Under the proposal, patients could opt to have their records made available electronically to doctors they authorize.

“It can be an extraordinary tool for someone… who is willing to take the step,” Wirth said during debate on the floor, where the bill passed 36-4. “Or, for someone who is hurt or has a medical incident where they are not able to consent and provide those records, this tool could save their lives.”

Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said that the bill (SB 278) is not a mandate.

“You’ve got to make the decision of whether you want your records available electronically,” he said. “That’s the decision that you as a patient are going to make.”

Patients would re-consent annually to have their information available electronically. In an emergency, a doctor would have access to records, similar to what is allowed under current law with traditional records.

The measure is a key part of Gov. Bill Richardson’s health care package this session — a package that diminished greatly from last year, when the governor pushed a slew of bills aimed at reforming the health-care industry. The records bill now goes to the House for consideration.

Wirth and other supporters say the measure could save millions of dollars by helping avoid unneeded medical tests.

“Duplicate x-rays, duplicate tests, those are all avoided when the doctor has the information in front of them,” Wirth said.

Critics in the past have worried that the proposal could give unauthorized access to a person’s medical records, but Wirth has said safeguards are in place to protect against that. The bill sets up a unique identifier for each patient and an audit log for a patient to see who has accessed their information.

A patient also could chose which of their records they want to be available electronically, and could withhold mental health records, for example, Wirth said.

Or, he said, “you could decide `I want those online so if I have a seizure somewhere, somebody could pull them up.”’

Already, the state Department of Health is using electronic medical records in public health offices. The department has helped 122 providers set up electronic records systems and 600 doctors use the electronic system, the department said.

Wirth estimated it would cost between $30,000 to $50,000 for an individual practitioner to set up the electronic records program. The federal stimulus package includes grants that doctors could ask for to set up an electronic system, he said,

Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, said security issues with the measure had been resolved to her satisfaction.

“We want to make sure info is exchanged so you get the right information going from place A to place B,” she said.

Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, voted against the measure because he worried that doctors who use the electronic records could get a better Medicaid reimbursement rate than those who don’t.

“If we’re going to have these medical records, we ought to treat everyone the same,” he said.

Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, applauded the measure’s passage.

“We forget about the fabulous quality improvements that will be happening as a result of the implementations of electronic medical records,” she said, “and they will save lives, they will save thousands of lives just because emergency personnel will be able to act much quicker.”

Contact Kate Nash at 986-3036 or knash@sfnewmexican.com.