Right now, patients, providers and payers do not have the information they need to seek out the best-quality care at the most affordable price, Leavitt said.
Such information could make for a healthier nation and keep down health care costs. Employers who purchase health insurance for their workers should encourage systems that make the information available, he said.
The request came at a national meeting of employers, where Leavitt asked companies to sign a statement of support for four "cornerstones" that would create incentives for more efficient spending and provide more information to patients, providers and payers about health care costs and quality.
Companies that sign the statement would not make a legally binding commitment, according to an HHS Web site that describes the initiative. Instead, the signature would indicate employers "intent to make a good faith effort to use their purchasing power to advance interoperable health IT, quality and cost or price transparency, and incentives for providers and consumers, such as pay-for-performance and consumer-directed health plans."
First of the four cornerstones is support for information technology, particularly for interoperability standards that let disparate health information systems exchange data.
The second cornerstone is having independent measures of quality for hospitals and doctors. Such measures will be impossible without electronic medical records, Leavitt said. Collecting accurate information is the biggest problem. "When all the records are on paper, quality measurement ends up being a nurse that comes in on a Saturday and sorts through a two-foot-high stack of paper files."
The third cornerstone is the ability to compare costs, which allows different providers and payers to show the true cost of care.
The fourth cornerstone is incentives for people who choose higher quality and lower costs. That translates into consumer health plans for patients and pay-for-performance plans for doctors.
Pressure from employers and the federal government would move the market toward systems for providing information and incentives that make health care more efficient, Leavitt told an audience estimated to represent more than 180 purchasers and more than 25 associations that influence or provide health care for 200 million Americans in total.
He predicted that change would come fast. "By spring next year, when payers put out their requests for proposals for 2008, over 60 percent of the entire marketplace will include the four cornerstones as a significant part of their criteria."
Leavitt said the federal government, which pays for nearly 40 percent of health care in America, will lead the effort. Earlier in 2006, President Bush signed an executive order directing government agencies that pay for health care to purchase interoperable technology when acquiring or updating systems.