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.

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