by Maggie Fox
Last Updated: 2009-01-29 16:57:03 -0400 (Reuters Health)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Economic stimulus plans being debated in Congress would pour billions into healthcare, propping up Medicaid, the government health insurance plan for the poor, and pushing doctors and hospitals to move from paper to computers.

The House of Representatives version calls for $825 billion in emergency spending and tax cuts while the Senate price tag is about $887 billion.

At least $100 billion would go to health care proposals that widen the safety net for the unemployed and back up the idea that improving fractured U.S. health care system would also help kick-start the economy.

The Senate plan includes:

— $87 billion increase in the federal share for Medicaid, the joint state-federal health insurance plan for the poor. States have complained they are struggling to pay their share of the program because of lost tax revenues in the recession.

— A $25 billion, 10-year injection to COBRA — the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act that allows workers who lose their jobs and thus health insurance to keep the insurance.

The Democratic-led proposal calls for the government to pay 65 percent of COBRA premiums for people who lost their jobs after September. Last week a report from the Commonwealth Fund found only 9 percent of people who are eligible for COBRA actually sign up, mostly because it is so expensive.

— $17.9 billion for health information technology such as electronic medical records and electronic prescribing. Doctors whose patient list is made up of at least 30 percent Medicaid patients will get a bonus of 85 percent of their costs. Hospitals with 10 percent Medicaid clients will get a bonus that has yet to be calculated. A similar plan would apply to providers to Medicare, the insurance program for the elderly.

— $1.1 billion to study the comparative effectiveness of various medical tests and treatments through the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the National Institutes of Health.

— $1.3 billion to the Transitional Medical Assistance that gives welfare recipients a little extra time on Medicaid, even after they start earning too much to qualify otherwise.