Chasing the secretary and other tales of two cities

WASHINGTON—Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt must have thought I was stalking him when I, along with a few other reporters, followed him toward the door after his speech at the Washington Convention Center on Wednesday.

He, as did I, noticed that it was the third day in a row I had heard him give essentially the same speech—at three different venues in two cities.

Monday, I saw him at the Health Information and Management Systems Society summer meeting at the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel, right on Times Square.

About 24 hours and a 250-mile road trip with Mom and Dad later (they live in suburban Maryland), I was at the Wyndham City Center Hotel at New Hampshire Avenue and M Street in Northwest Washington. There, addressing the annual meeting of the National Alliance for Health Information Technology, was the very same HHS secretary, one Michael O. Leavitt.

Wednesday, the scene shifted a couple of miles east to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s overlapping health IT and patient safety conferences, the combination of which is most welcome and long overdue.

Podium: Leavitt. Press corps: Versel. Topics: the soon-to-be chartered American Health Information Community and the HHS requests for proposal on how to create a national, interoperable health IT infrastructure. Analogies used in the speech: Gears in a grandfather clock and standardized rail gauges. Déjà vu: All over again.

Just for good measure, AHRQ director Carolyn Clancy, M.D., and national health IT coordinator David Brailer, M.D., also were present Monday and Wednesday. On Tuesday, I got a little variety with a “town hall” session led by Reps. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) and Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), co-sponsors of a bill to promote electronic connectivity in healthcare.

I also scored about five minutes of quality time with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whom I was told was going to hold a press conference following his early-morning speech at HIMSS in New York. When I got to the press room, there was no press conference, just Newt and an aide eating breakfast. He invited me to sit down and chat for a bit.

My impression is that he’s a lot smarter than some people have made him out to be over the years and that he certainly has mellowed from his days as the bombastic leader of the 1994 Republican Revolution.

Just how much has he mellowed? Everyone knows about Gingrich playing nice with Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y) in the name of promoting health IT, but he shared a story during his speech about how a healthcare “debate” someone wanted to stage between Gingrich and Democratic National Committee chief Howard Dean, M.D., in Iowa became a rather cordial “dialog.” Apparently it didn’t get a whole lot of news coverage. This is all I could find.

For the record, Hillary also is playing nice with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, M.D. (R-Tenn.), who doesn’t exactly qualify as a Friend of Bill, Chelsea or any other Clinton. She and Frist are preparing a Senate companion to the Kennedy-Murphy bill.

As they say, politics makes strange bedfellows—though maybe it’s not surprising, given that healthcare costs are pretty much out of control, quality of care is sub-optimal and 45 million Americans lack any sort of insurance coverage.

That number could become 45,000,001 on July 1, when my COBRA benefits run out. I still have not found a suitable plan for myself. Perhaps it’s time for a quickie wedding just for the health insurance. Any takers?