Monday, June 27, 2011
By Tom Still
WASHINGTON -- His days as secretary of the federal Department of Health and Human Services are long over, but former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson shows no signs of losing touch with the often-complicated challenges facing American health care.
Speaking at a dinner in Washington, D.C., on the eve of the 2011 BIO International Convention, Thompson talked with health-care experts and investors about the nuances of Medicare reform, access to care for Medicaid patients and electronic medical records - an innovation he pushed while serving as President Bush's DHSS secretary.
"I don't think you'll see, for the foreseeable future, a centralized government system" for health-care delivery, Thompson told a dinner hosted by Healthcare REIT and Prescience International. However, federal efforts to encourage adoption of electronic health records - an idea that first gathered speed during the Bush years - should continue to help patients, increase safety and improve quality.
Wisconsin has been a leader in electronic health records, with institutions such as the Marshfield Clinic developing its own system over decades and Epic Systems in Verona growing into one of the world's leading providers of patient-care records to hospitals and major clinics. Epic employs about 4,000 people, mostly in Wisconsin.
Electronic medical records help take paper medical records out of the equation, which means patient-care records can be available across entire medical systems and beyond. Data indicates they help reduce errors and keep patients in closer touch with health-care professionals, which can help prevent minor problems from growing into health emergencies.
"In today's world, you don't always get sick in your home town or even someplace else in Wisconsin," Thompson said. "You may get sick in another state or another country. Electronic health records help tremendously in those situations."
Electronic health records have been a fixture in the U.S. military for years, and are credited with increasing the quality and efficiency of care for service personnel. As one U.S. Navy physician told Thompson, "I don't write notes. I have never written notes (since beginning his Navy practice in 1995)."
Thompson said he would like to see electronic health records become "ubiquitous" in the United States, but acknowledged that smaller health-care organizations and older medical professionals may be among the last adopters.
Thompson, who is considering a run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Herb Kohl, also discussed the Medicare Part D drug coverage benefits that began during the Bush administration. He said cost increases have been far less than predicted, and a recent survey revealed that four out of five senior citizens believe it's working.
"Medicare Part D is working better than anyone ever thought it would," Thompson said. "Let's put it this way: You haven't seen any legislation to repeal Medicare Part D."
Republican Thompson didn't directly address his possible U.S. Senate run, but said Democrats and Republicans alike share some blame for the current deadlock over raising the federal debt ceiling. "Right now, we're seeing two intransigent positions," he said, rather than discussions aimed at finding consensus.
Thompson served as DHHS secretary from 2001 until 2005, and was governor of Wisconsin from 1987 until leaving for the federal post.