The benefits are simple: a standard health record will reduce bureaucracy costs, reduce the chances of errors, make it harder for insurers to play coverage and reimbursement games, and simplify the delivery of patient care.
Yet 12 years after HIPAA was enacted, we don't have the instrument needed at its core. So break the impasse and make it happen. It should be a straightforward effort for the American Medical Association and insurance industry to propose a health record standard and for the federal government to mandate its use, with a clear deadline for execution. So get to it. And forget relying on the unwieldy system of regional health information organizations (RHIOs) to lead the health records effort, which were meant to avoid a federal mandate and let regional associations essentially compete to develop the best approaches. RHIOs can be effective in leading the implementation of national standards and extending them for regional purposes (the California RHIO is a good example of that).
A national identity and privacy system
The U.S. today has a fiction that there is no national identity card, which somehow is a good thing. We do have one (the Social Security number), but because we pretend we don't, we have a very inefficient system for maintaining and accessing information on ourselves. Big businesses, the government itself, and spy agencies around the world already have the resources to connect the information stored on each of us for data mining, surveillance, and other purposes. But individual citizens must maneuver through an impossible maze to get and correct financial, employment, health, credit, and other such information. The lunacy of this is the fact that the major credit reporting agencies make us pay for access to the financial information about ourselves, while they are free to sell it to pretty much anyone they want and have few burdens of ensuring its accuracy.
There should be a national identity system, preferably one that uses some sort of secure card so it can be used across various business and government systems. Passports, drivers' licenses, and so on could be replaced with a single card, one that likely would use good old two-factor authentication -- biometric data and a password -- to maintain its security both at the user end and at the transaction end.
Such a card could even be used as a rechargeable cash card, saving the government much of the expense of printing, storing, and transporting cash, and saving merchants the expenses of handling cash or the high fees for debit card transactions. Leave space on such cards for personal and business information, and you could use it in lieu of credit cards and insurance cards. Make card readers available for personal computers, and you can secure online transactions, from voting to e-commerce to tax preparation (imagine being able to access all the relevant tax data and have it downloaded into one place, rather than have to rekey it from paper forms into your tax software).
Yes, this would require a large card-management system to allow password changes and so on, but the financial industry has long used such systems, so the issue is an implementation one, not a fundamental technology one. And it would end the waste in having so many separate systems for drivers' licenses, passports, and so on.