Editor's Note: On the eve of the first anniversary of the Supreme Court's ruling to uphold most provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Medscape Editor-in-Chief Eric J. Topol, MD, questioned Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius about the act's effect on medical technology, clinical trial participation, genetic testing, primary care, and patient safety.
Dr. Topol: We are experiencing a digital revolution in which technological advances are putting healthcare where it should be: in the hands of patients. How is the ACA helping to foster medical innovation?
Secretary Sebelius: A recent New York Times column, "Obamacare's Other Surprise," by Thomas L. Friedman, echoes what we've been hearing from healthcare providers and innovators: Data that support medical decision-making and collaboration, dovetailing with new tools in the Affordable Care Act, are spurring the innovation necessary to deliver improved healthcare for more people at affordable prices.
Today we are focused on driving a smarter healthcare system with an emphasis on the quality -- not quantity -- of care. The healthcare law includes many tools to increase transparency, avoid costly mistakes and hospital readmissions, keep patients healthy, and test new payment and care delivery models, like Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs). Health information technology is a critical underpinning to this larger strategy.
In May we reached an important milestone in the adoption of health information technology. More than half of all doctors and other eligible providers, and nearly 80% of hospitals, are using electronic health records (EHRs) to improve care, an increase of at least 200% since 2008. Also in May, we announced a $1 billion challenge to help jump-start innovative projects that test creative ways to deliver high-quality medical care and lower costs to people enrolled in Medicare and Medicaid, following 81 Health Care Innovation Awards that HHS awarded last year.
Dr. Topol: Physicians have long lamented the lack of participation by patients in clinical trials, but the ACA is opening the door for greater participation by allowing patients to keep their health insurance while participating in clinical research. Are patients even aware that this provision now exists? How do you see it affecting clinical trial participation in the future?
Secretary Sebelius: In 2014, thanks to the ACA, insurance companies will no longer be able to deny patients from participating in an approved clinical trial for treatment of cancer or another life-threatening disease or condition, nor can they deny or limit the coverage of routine patient costs for items or services in connection with trial participation. For many patients, access to cutting-edge medicine available through clinical trials can increase their likelihood of survival. This is an important protection for patients that not only could have a life-altering impact, but it's also one that serves to facilitate participation in research that is critical to expanding our knowledge base and finding cures and treatments for those illnesses that threaten the lives of Americans each day.
Dr. Topol: One of the intentions of the ACA is to increase the primary care workforce. This is critical as we approach 2014, when more Americans than ever will have either private insurance or Medicaid. Have you seen any movement in the primary care workforce? Are there concerns that there aren't enough clinicians available to meet the forthcoming patient load?
Secretary Sebelius: Primary care providers are critical to ensuring better coordinated care and better health outcomes for all Americans. To meet the health needs of Americans, the Obama Administration has made the recruitment, training, and retention of primary care professionals a top priority.
Together, the ACA, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and ongoing federal investments in the healthcare workforce have led to significant progress in training new primary care providers -- such as physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants -- and encouraging primary care providers to practice in underserved areas, including:
Nearly tripling the National Health Service Corps;
Increasing the number of medical residents, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants trained in primary care, including placing over 1500 new primary care providers in underserved areas;
Creating primary care payment incentives for providers; and
Redistributing unused residency positions and directing those slots for the training of primary care physicians.
Additionally, the ACA is modernizing the primary care training infrastructure, creating new primary care clinical training opportunities, supporting primary care practice, and improving payment and financial incentives for coordinated care.