Rockefeller Looking to Grant Open Source

Thanks, in large part, to a little company called Standard Oil, Open Source isn't necessarily the first term to come to mind when one thinks of the name Rockefeller. However, that's exactly the term Mr. Rockefeller's great-grandson, Senator Jay Rockefeller, is pushing in Congress — attached to a bill to strengthen Open Source in health-care.

The proposal in question, The Health Information Technology (IT) Public Utility Act of 2009 (Senate Bill 890), is the latest in a series of Open-Source-in-Health-IT bills aimed at taking health-care — or at least health records — digital, one way or another. Sen. Rockefeller's bill proposes to create a new Public Utility Board at the federal level, under the auspices of the National Coordinator for Health IT's office within the Department of Health and Human Services. The board is composed of many of the same officials that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Tax Act of 2009 delegated to study the possibilities for Open Source health IT and report back before October 1st of next year.

According to the bill text, the main function of the Public Utility Board will be to establish and administer two grant programs aimed at aiding implementation of the existing — and Open Source — VistA and RPMS systems. The first grant program, the 21st Century Health Information Technology (Hit) Grants, are limited to "safety-net" health-care providers, and will offer funds to nonprofit providers, community health centers, health departments, community mental health clinics, rural and mobile clinics, and free clinics that may be used to put into place the RPMS & VistA systems, with preference given to those in areas of particular need or areas where providers are likely to treat the same patients on a regular basis. The second program, the 21st Century Health Information Technology Demonstration Program For Ineligible Entities, will provide not more than 10% of the board's annual appropriation to go towards enabling those not eligible for the first program to engage in "demonstration projects" to implement VistA and RPMS.

To read Sen. Rockefeller's press release, one might get the impression that the bill is a sweeping move towards Open Source implementation at the federal level. Phrases like "to cover the full cost of open source software implementation," "[f]acilitate ongoing communication with open source user groups," and "[d]evelop and integrate quality and performance measurement into open source software modules" elicit ideas of broad implementation of a variety of Open Source applications. Unfortunately, the visions of Linux desktops in every office and OpenOffice on every desktop will have to wait for another day — as far as we can see, the only Open Source implementation provided for in the bill is implementation of the existing Open Source VistA and RPMS platforms. Indeed, the term "Open Source" only appears once in the bill's 342 lines:

[U]pdate VistA and RPMS open source software (including health care provider-based electronic health records, personal health records, and other software modules) on a timely basis. (§3(c)(2))

None the less, Sen. Rockefeller's bill, and the Open Source IT bills that have come before it, are a firm step in the right direction, bringing the benefits — and the vision — of Open Source to the highest echelons.


Justin Ryan is a Contributing Editor for Linux Journal.


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VistA is VA and not FOSS !!! wow

Anonymous's picture

Im surprised (or mabey not) that FOSS would copy a medical application off the VA in open source and call it exactly the same as as an application that is allready in existance.

Whats to say that this Senator thinks that the VA version of VistA is the Open Source version ???

Is this another example of FOSS riding the coat tails of a successfull program or application (or OS) in preference to their own innovation.

Sometimes its hard to determine what is real FOSS invention or innovation ?

It started from the begining,

Linux = clone of UNIX (Unix-like)
OO.o = MS Office
email clients, well just about everything i can think of.

Im sure there will be more than enough to correct me if im wrong, while your at it please detain some of the innovation created by FOSS please.


David Lane's picture

Let us be clear.

VistA, as deployed by the Department of Veterans Affairs is NOT Open Source. It is an internal project guarded by a very small develoment team speaking a very old language and working with a very rickety infrastructure. This is not to say it is a bad program or does not work well - it is actually a very good example of the if it works, don't fix it model.

The Open Source version of VistA has some great potential for modernizing (if you can believe I am using this term when talking about health care) the entire health care industry if:

1) Someone can convince hospitals to implement it. This is not a small task. Most hospitals work at a loss and keeping the medical equipment current is primary only to keeping the billing system current. Larger hospitals have a more integrated IT infrastructure, cobbled together with a variety of programs and hardware, many of which are, well, less than current. Upgrading to a program like VistA, means that there would have to be a large consulting industry behind it to support it because most hospitals outsource pretty much all of that support. The current level of support just is not there.

2) Someone can convince the medical practice to implement it. Ever wondered why your doctor's office has so few computers? Other than billing, most patient files are still on paper. In fact, I cannot think of one of my doctors that has my files electronically. If the hospitals have financial issues, imaging all the, in effect mom and pop doctors offices around the US that would have to be modernized. I do not realistically believe that the United States government could print enough money to get them up to date. There is still push back on issuing prescriptions electronically because of cost and complexity.

It is a wonderful idea and certainly an area where there is tremendous growth opportunity, but it is also an area, like ERP systems, that is highly specialized and currently lacking the critical mass to be successful.

Open Source has much more hope of success, from a government perspective, in the Defense Department where the Navy and Army have both issue inital memos supporting the use of FOSS as meeting the definition of Commercial Off The Shelf software as listed in the Federal Acquisition Requlations

But then, what do you expect from Rockefeller, who has also suggested that the US President have the ability in law to shut down the Internet.

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack

Same guy, different story

Anonymous's picture

The same Senator is also spreading FUD about cyber terrorism and the subsequent need to control the internet...