Government Makes an Appointment for an Open Source Checkup

For anyone interested in politics — and for more than a few interested in technology — the talk of the weekend has been the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Tax Act of 2009, which cleared Congress late Friday night and is due to be signed into law by President Obama on Tuesday. The bill, which runs to more than 1,000 pages, provides for everything from increased airport security to electric cars for government use, including several billion dollars in appropriations for various technology-related programs. Nestled in with the tax breaks, economic incentives, and direct spending, though, is a brief but exciting provision, setting the stage for Open Source to be the word of the day.

Buried in the depths of the bill — halfway down page 488 in the Library of Congress' Bill Text Div. B — sits Section 4104(b). In a succinct 262 words, Section 4104(b) directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to study the availability, cost, utility, and interoperability of Open Source health information technology, and to report back his findings no later than October 1, 2010. The HHS Secretary won't be studying Open Source alone, though — in all likelihood, he won't be studying it at all, his staff will — Congress formed a committee of sorts to handle the job, including high-level representatives from the Veterans Health Administration, the Indian Health Service, the Defense Department, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the Health Resources and Services Administration, and the Federal Communications Commission. The text we reviewed did not set out appropriations for the undertaking, but we suspect it's safe to bet there's a good bit of money in it for someone.

The study places a great deal of emphasis — not surprisingly, considering the cost advantages involved with Open Source — on "smaller health care providers, health care providers located in rural or other medically underserved [sic] areas, and safety net providers that deliver a significant level of health care to uninsured individuals, Medicaid beneficiaries, SCHIP beneficiaries, and other vulnerable individuals." The usual legislative-speak aside, the straightforward and unusually-brief directive seems to indicate that Congress is on the verge of strongly recommending, if not requiring, Open Source health technologies, at least of providers who treat individuals whose care is federally funded. Though it's somewhat par for the course when ordering studies of this sort, the provision specifically directs the Secretary not only to report his findings, but to offer "recommendations for such legislation and administrative action as the Secretary determines appropriate."

If it's going to be done right — and considering the cash being poured into these projects, we certainly hope it is — this undertaking should create at least a few jobs for experienced Open Source-ers. Congress seems to be asking "Is it for real, and does it work?" and who better than the Open Source community to give the answers we've been practicing — in the desert, some might say — for years.

More information on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, including full text of the bills and relevant votes, is available from the Library of Congress.
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