(Bloomberg) — The Obama administration will push hospitals and software providers to share patient data in an effort to maximize the benefits of electronic records, the U.S. coordinator for health-information technology says.

The administration is considering steps such as extending legal protections for physicians who share data and changing Medicare and Medicaid payments to encourage open access, says Farzad Mostashari, the top U.S. official on health technology. 

The administration has set aside an estimated $27 billion to help doctors and hospitals buy electronic systems. The companies that build the systems have clashed over how to exchange information across their competing systems. Vendors, led by Epic Systems Corp. and Cerner Corp., need to get on board or risk losing customers, Mostashari says. 

“The competition is trending toward who can be the most interoperable,” Mostashari said today in an interview at the electronic medical records industry’s New Orleans conference. “The purchaser is saying, ‘My payment now, and increasingly in the future, will depend on how well I can share data and not on holding it hostage.’ And they want vendors who can help them with that.” 

The tension among software makers has been on display at this months’s Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society conference. On March 4, Cerner, McKesson Corp. and three other vendors said they’d agreed to write standards for exchanging data across their systems, a step that would give doctors easier access to patient information. 

The administration put the money for electronic records into its 2009 stimulus plan, arguing the technology will help doctors coordinate care and cut down on wasteful spending. While the number of physicians on computerized records has increased since then, the benefits haven’t yet met expectations, says Arthur Kellerman, a health policy analyst at the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based research group. 

While Rand once predicted savings of as much as $81 billion a year from electronic records, U.S. health care spending has continued to increase, partly because of systems that don’t share information, Kellerman wrote in January in the journal Health Affairs

“The health IT systems that dominate the market are not designed to talk to each other,” he said. New rules promised by the Obama administration “are already triggering resistance from providers and vendors.”

The administration last week issued a “request for information” seeking ideas on how to encourage more information-sharing. New regulations, if any, won’t come before 2014, Mostashari says.

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