Friday, February 22, 2008

Ask Boehner Column: What's Different Now that the Terrorist Surveillance Law Has Expired?

Regarding the terrorist surveillance laws that Congress is fighting over: Can you explain what is different today compared to before the law expired?

The law giving our intelligence officials the ability to quickly begin monitoring communications among suspected terrorists and terror groups expired at midnight, Saturday, February 16. While we can continue surveillance begun before that date, any new surveillance will be delayed by lengthy legal proceedings that put us and our troops overseas at an increased risk of attack. Let me give you an example.

The New York Post recently reported a heartbreaking story about U.S. forces in Iraq having to wait 10 hours last May before they could begin searching for three American soldiers taken hostage by al Qaeda because lawyers here in the United States were hammering out the proper documents to get emergency permission for wiretaps. One of our soldiers was found dead, two others remain missing. In August, Congress updated the law to ensure that a situation like this does not repeat itself, and that short-term fix expired – as I noted – on February 16. And now Congress has the responsibility to act on long-term modernization of our surveillance laws.

When the original Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was enacted in 1978, a world of wireless communications was unthinkable. Today, technology has changed so much that FISA must be updated to give us the best chance to intercept terrorist chatter. That update includes providing liability protections for third parties that voluntarily help the federal government monitor wireless communications. National Director of Intelligence Mike McConnell, appearing on a national news program recently, said that it’s very difficult to compel a private company to cooperate unless the company is assured it will not face legal action stemming from its help. Already, some trial attorneys are seeking millions of dollars in the form of frivolous lawsuits from third parties who have voluntarily cooperated to help protect us.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had this to say about the consequences of letting this law expire: "What people have to understand around here is that the quality of the intelligence we are going to be receiving is going to be degraded. It is going to be degraded. It is already going to be degraded as telecommunications companies lose interest."

I remain hopeful that when the House returns from a 12-day recess, it will immediately pass the same legislation approved by bipartisan Senate that will restore our ability to quickly intercept terrorist communications and protect the private companies that help keep us safe.

Do you know of any programs to use electronic patient records to improve medical care?

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is actually implementing a five-year demonstration project for small- to medium-size primary care physicians to use electronic health records to improve patient care. The program’s goal is to revolutionize the way healthcare information is managed, reduce medical errors and improve the quality of care for an estimated 3.6 million Americans.

An electronic health record contains information such as prescription records, test results, treatment histories, progress reports and even X-rays. The benefits range from fewer adverse reactions to prescriptions and fewer redundant tests and procedures to faster diagnosis and treatment with comprehensive health information readily available.

HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt and other senior HHS officials are meeting with community leaders across the country to encourage communities to apply to this program. Eligible communities will include those that:

  • Demonstrate active community collaboration with a broad group of stakeholders – healthcare providers, medical professional groups, patients and employers;

  • Show private sector support that includes the possibility of similar programs among employers or health plans in the region;

  • Are geographically large enough to recruit enough small- and medium-size medical practices – 100 will be eligible for incentives while another 100 will be control sites; and

  • Are not already participating in a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) demonstration similar to the electronic records program.

  • Once the 12 communities are selected in June, CMS will begin working within these communities to recruit eligible physician practices. The practices may receive financial incentives throughout the program that will vary in amount and will, in part, depend on reporting and performance for quality measures.

    For more information on this program, e-mail

    If you are an 8th District resident and have questions about either of these issues – or other issues with the federal government – please contact my office toll-free, 1-800-583-1001.

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