Americans are to have better information on the quality and cost of healthcare. An executive order signed by President Bush on August 22, 2006, requires the four agencies that oversee federal healthcare programmes to increase transparency in pricing and quality of services provided, to adopt improved health IT systems to facilitate rapid exchange of health information and to provide options that promote quality and efficiency in healthcare.

Medicare beneficiaries, patients covered by the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs, and federal employees must have access to the information by January 1, 2007. About 25% of Americans covered by health insurance are enrolled in federal healthcare programmes.

The agencies must develop programmes that measure the quality of care in collaboration with the private sector and non-federal public sector and make available to beneficiaries the prices the agencies pay for common procedures. The order also requires them to develop and identify practices that promote high-quality care. Healthcare providers and insurance plans contracted by the federal programmes must also use health IT systems that adhere to interoperable standards set by the HHS to facilitate the exchange of health information.

The initiative will provide data that insurers and other healthcare providers can use to educate consumers and will ultimately introduce changes to the way in which healthcare is purchased. By Jeanette Marchant