Americans need and deserve health information technology (IT). As the chairman and CEO of Verizon Communications Inc. and the only business representative on a federal commission to develop a strategy for health care IT standards, I have spent considerable time over the past several years promoting this technological necessity.  

In addition, Verizon helped found an unprecedented, broad-based coalition of health associations, consumer groups, labor unions, patient organizations, and other businesses to urge Congress to pass a health IT bill. I’m also the chairman of the Health and Retirement Task Force of the Business Roundtable, so on Wednesday (April 2) I will join Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), and Ron Williams, chairman and CEO of Aetna, to urge Congress to pass the Wired for Health Care Quality Act, authored by Senators Kennedy and Enzi.

The Business Roundtable represents some of the largest companies in the country, which together provide health care coverage for more than 35 million Americans. As such, we have a very big stake in an affordable, accessible, high-quality health care system. It’s obvious to us that health IT must be a critical piece of such a system.

Banks use ATMs and networked computers to give us access to our financial records anytime, anywhere, and always securely and privately. Online retailers know which books we ordered last month and what color sweater we ordered for Christmas last year. In the same way, doctors and hospitals ought to be able to access our up-to-date health records when they need them. Yet our health care system is stuck in an era of paper and pen and lacks even the simplest IT foundation for electronic communications. That’s unacceptable.

In today’s paper-based health care system, your vital and private medical records are kept in filing cabinets and cardboard boxes, and your history is scattered, with a piece residing with every doctor you’ve ever seen. This means that a medical professional can’t be sure they have your complete medical history, can’t know if it’s up-to-date, and can’t find anything in it easily.

Health IT gives your doctors — and you — secure, private, and protected access to your complete medical history. It increases convenience, brings more and better health care to underserved and minority communities, improves care for chronic illness, and can virtually eliminate nearly 100,000 deaths caused by medical errors each year. And with costs spiraling out of control, health IT is a big part of the solution to the health care problem. The widespread application of health IT could produce annual efficiency savings alone of about $81 billion — nearly equal to everything we spend today treating all types of cancer.

At Verizon, health care benefits used to be just one more element in a package of benefits, but now it is a line item in our budget of $4 billion annually and growing. Over 900,000 employees, retirees, and their families depend on our company for health care. We have a commitment to support the health and well-being of our employees and their families, so we have to figure out how to maintain this responsibility as its share of our corporate budget continues to grow. The technology to do so exists today but must be implemented thoughtfully. The first thing we need to do is adopt interconnected and interoperable standards for health IT platforms so that electronic medical records can be shared seamlessly among health care providers, as required by the bipartisan Wired for Health Care Quality Act.

Finally, Americans deserve a secure system that safeguards their privacy and provides a backup, so all would not be lost in the event of a fire or flood. An electronic system also allows monitoring and auditing, so that we know every time a record is accessed.

Each day that the Wired for Health Care Quality Act languishes in Congress means more dollars wasted and more medical errors and deaths that could have been prevented. Since this bill was introduced on June 26, 2007, an estimated 75,000 lives have been lost and more than $127 billion wasted that could have been saved if health IT were broadly used. The time to pass health care IT legislation is now.