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AHA Asks Congress To Reduce Health IT Regulations for Medicare Providers

Posted on September 22, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

The American Hospital Association has sent a letter to Congress asking members to reduce regulatory burdens for Medicare providers, including mandates affecting a wide range of health IT services.

The letter, which is addressed to the House Ways and Means Health subcommittee, notes that in 2016, CMS and other HHS agencies released 49 rules impacting hospitals and health systems, which make up nearly 24,000 pages of text.

“In addition to the sheer volume, the scope of changes required by the new regulations is beginning to outstrip the field’s ability to absorb them,” says the letter, which was signed by Thomas Nickels, executive vice president of government relations and public policy for the AHA. The letter came with a list of specific changes AHA is proposing.

Proposals of potential interest to health IT leaders include the following. The AHA is asking Congress to:

  • Expand Medicare coverage of telehealth to patients outside of rural areas and expand the types of technology that can be used. It also suggests that CMS should automatically reimburse for Medicare-covered services when delivered via telehealth unless there’s an individual exception.
  • Remove HIPAA barriers to sharing patient medical information with providers that don’t have a direct relationship with that patient, in the interests of improving care coordination and outcomes in a clinically-integrated setting.
  • Cancel Stage 3 of the Meaningful Use program, institute a 90-day reporting period for future program years and eliminate the all-or-nothing approach to compliance.
  • Suspend eCQM reporting requirements, given how difficult it is at present to pull outside data into certified EHRs for quality reporting.
  • Remove requirements that hospitals attest that they have bought technology which supports health data interoperability, as well as that they responded quickly and in good faith to requests for exchange with others. At present, hospitals could face penalties for technical issues outside their control.
  • Refocus the ONC to address a narrower scope of issues, largely EMR standards and certification, including testing products to assure health data interoperability.

I am actually somewhat surprised to say that these proposals seem to be largely reasonable. Typically, when they’re developed by trade groups, they tend to be a bit too stacked in favor of that group’s subgroup of concerns. (By the way, I’m not taking a position on the rest of the regulatory ideas the AHA put forth.)

For example, expanding Medicare telehealth coverage seems prudent. Given their age, level of chronic illness and attendant mobility issues, telehealth could potentially do great things for Medicare beneficiaries.

Though it should be done carefully, tweaking HIPAA rules to address the realities of clinical integration could be a good thing. Certainly, no one is suggesting that we ought to throw the rulebook out the window, it probably makes sense to square it with today’s clinical realities.

Also, the idea of torquing down MU 3 makes some sense to me as well, given the uncertainties around the entirety of MU. I don’t know if limiting future reporting to 90-day intervals is wise, but I wouldn’t take it off of the table.

In other words, despite spending much of my career ripping apart trade groups’ legislative proposals, I find myself in the unusual position of supporting the majority of the ones I list above. I hope Congress gives these suggestions some serious consideration.

Hospital EMR Adoption Divide Widening, With Critical Access Hospitals Lagging

Posted on September 8, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

I don’t know about you, but I was a bit skeptical when HIMSS Analytics rolled out its EMRAM {Electronic Medical Record Adoption Model) research program. As some of you doubtless know, EMRAM breaks EMR adoption into eight stages, from Stage 0 (no health IT ancillaries installed) to Stage 7 (complete EMR installed, with data analytics on board).

From its launch onward, I’ve been skeptical about EMRAM’s value, in part because I’ve never been sure that hospital EMR adoption could be packaged neatly into the EMRAM stages. Perhaps the research model is constructed well, but the presumption that a multivariate process of health IT adoption can be tracked this way is a bit iffy in my opinion.

On the other hand, I like the way the following study breaks things out. New research published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association looks at broader measures of hospital EHR adoption, as well as their level of performance in two key categories.

The study’s main goal was to assess the divide between hospitals using their EHRs in an advanced fashion and those that were not. One of the key steps in their process was to crunch numbers in a manner allowing them to identify hospital characteristics associated with high adoption in each of the advanced use criteria.

To conduct the research, the authors dug into 2008 to 2015 American Hospital Association Information Technology Supplement survey data. Using the data, the researchers measured “basic” and “comprehensive” EHR adoption among hospitals. (The ONC has created definitions for both basic and advanced adoption.)

Next, the research team used new supplement questions to evaluate advanced use of EHRs. As part of this process, they also used EHR data to evaluate performance management and patient engagement functions.

When all was said and done, they drew the following conclusions:

  • 80.5% of hospitals had adopted a basic EHR system, up 5.3% from 2014
  • 37.5% of hospitals had adopted at least 8 (of 10) EHR data sets useful for performance measurement
  • 41.7% of hospitals adopted at least 8 (of 10) EHR functions related to patient engagement

One thing that stood out among all the data was that critical access hospitals were less likely to have adopted at least 8 performance measurement functions and at least eight patient engagement functions. (Notably, HIMSS Analytics research from 2015 had already found that rural hospitals had begun to close this gap.)

“A digital divide appears to be emerging [among hospitals], with critical-access hospitals in particular lagging behind,” the article says. “This is concerning, because EHR-enabled performance measurement and patient engagement are key contributors to improving hospital performance.”

While the results don’t surprise me – and probably won’t surprise you either – it’s a shame to be reminded that critical access hospitals are trailing other facilities. As we all know, they’re always behind the eight ball financially, often understaffed and overloaded.

Given their challenges, it’s predictable that critical access hospitals would continue lag behind in the health IT adoption curve. Unfortunately, this deprives them of feedback which could improve care and perhaps offer a welcome boost to their efficiency as well. It’s a shame the way the poor always get poorer.

The More Hospital IT Changes, The More It Remains The Same

Posted on June 23, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

Once every year or two, some technical development leads the HIT buzzword list, and at least at first it’s very hard to tell whether that will stick. But over time, the technologies that actually work well are subsumed into the industry as it exists, lose their buzzworthy quality and just do their job.

Once in a while, the hot new thing sparks real change — such as the use of mobile health applications — but more often the ideas are mined for whatever value they offer and discarded.  That’s because in many cases, the “new thing” isn’t actually novel, but rather a slightly different take on existing technology.

I’d argue that this is particularly true when it comes to hospital IT, given the exceptionally high cost of making large shifts and the industry’s conservative bent. In fact, other than the (admittedly huge) changes fostered by the adoption of EMRs, hospital technology deployments are much the same as they were ten years ago.

Of course, I’d be undercutting my thesis dramatically if I didn’t stipulate that EMR adoption has been a very big deal. Things have certainly changed dramatically since 2007, when an American Hospital Association study reported that 32% percent of hospitals had no EMR in place and 57% had only partially implemented their EMR, with only the remaining 11% having implemented the platform fully.

Today, as we know, virtually every hospital has implemented an EMR integrated it with ancillary systems (some more integrated and some less).  Not only that, some hospitals with more mature deployments in place have used EMRs and connected tools to make major changes in how they deliver care.

That being said, the industry is still struggling with many of the same problems it did in a decade ago.

The most obvious example of this is the extent to which health data interoperability efforts have stagnated. While hospitals within a health system typically share data with their sister facilities, I’d argue that efforts to share data with outside organizations have made little material progress.

Another major stagnation point is data analytics. Even organizations that spent hundreds of millions of dollars on their EMR are still struggling to squeeze the full value of this data out of their systems. I’m not suggesting that we’ve made no progress on this issue (certainly, many of the best-funded, most innovative systems are getting there), but such successes are still far from common.

Over the longer-term, I suspect the shifts in consciousness fostered by EMRs and digital health will gradually reshape the industry. But don’t expect those technology lightning bolts to speed up the evolution of hospital IT. It’s going take some time for that giant ship to turn.

ACO-Affiliated Hospitals May Be Ahead On Strategic Health IT Use

Posted on December 26, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

Over the past several years I’ve been struck by how seldom ACOs seem to achieve the objectives they’re built to meet – particularly cost savings and quality improvement goals – even when the organizations involved are pretty sophisticated.

For example, the results generated the Medicare Shared Savings Program and  Pioneer ACO Model have been inconsistent at best, with just 31% of participants getting a savings bonus for 2015, despite the fact that the “Pioneers” were chosen for their savvy and willingness to take on risk.

Some observers suggested this would change as hospitals and ACOs found better health IT solutions, but I’ve always been somewhat skeptical about this. I’m not a fan of the results we got when capitation was the rage, and to me current models have always looked like tarted-up capitation, the fundamental flaws of which can’t be fixed by technology.

All that being said, a new journal article suggests that I may be wrong about the hopelessness of trying to engineer a workable value-based solution with health IT. The study, which was published in the American Journal of Managed Care, has concluded that if nothing else, ACO incentives are pushing hospitals to make more strategic HIT investments than they may have before.

To conduct the study, which compared health IT adoption in hospitals participating in ACOs with hospitals that weren’t ACO-affiliated, the authors gathered data from 2013 and 2014 surveys by the American Hospital Association. They focused on hospitals’ adherence to Stage 1 and Stage 2 Meaningful Use criteria, patient engagement-oriented health IT use and HIE participation.

When they compared 393 ACO hospitals and 810 non-ACO hospitals, the researchers found that a larger percentage of ACO hospitals were capable of meeting MU Stage 1 and Stage 2. They also noted that nearly 40% of ACO hospitals had patient engagement tech in place, as compared with 15.2% of non-ACO hospitals. Meanwhile, 49% of ACO hospitals were involved with HIEs, compared with 30.1% of non-ACO hospitals.

Bottom line, the authors concluded that ACO-based incentives are proving to be more effective than Meaningful Use at getting hospitals adopt new and arguably more effective technologies. Fancy that! (Finding and implementing those solutions is still a huge challenge for ACOs, but that’s a story for another day.)

Of course, the authors seem to take it as a given that patient engagement tech and HIEs are strategic for more or less any hospital, an assumption they don’t do much to justify. Also, they don’t address how hospitals in and out of ACOs are pursuing population health or big data strategies, which seems like a big omission. This weakens their argument somewhat in my view. But the data is worth a look nonetheless.

I’m quite happy to see some evidence that ACO models can push hospitals to make good health IT investment decisions. After all, it’d be a bummer if hospitals had spent all of that time and money building them out for nothing.

Hospitals Offering Broad Access To Health Data, But There Are Limits

Posted on October 5, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

A new study released by the ONC concludes that hospitals are almost universally offering patients ability to view their data electronically, with large numbers offering patients the ability to view and share their data digitally as well.

While the data reveals that hospitals have become more ready to offer electronic access to patient records, it also suggests that they are struggling to provide a full array of electronic access options. The fact that some hospitals still haven’t gotten there may be just a phase, but it may also suggest that issues still remain which they need to address before they offer a full range of patient data functions.

On the one hand, the results of the study are promising. The ONC data demonstrates that there’s been a very substantial uptick in the deployment of patient data access technologies between 2012 and 2015. The data shows that in 2015, 95% of U.S. hospitals gave patients the ability to view their health information electronically, 87% allowed them to download their health information and 69% offered the trifecta (patients get to view, download and transmit the health information).

These numbers represent huge changes that took place during the period studied. For example, in 2013 no state had 40% or more of its hospitals offering patients the ability to view, download or transmit their data, and now all states have at least 40% of their hospitals offering all three options. Meanwhile, the volume of hospitals offering view and download availability has grown 70% when compared to 2012, the ONC reports. And the proportion of hospitals providing view, download and transmit capabilities increased seven fold from 2013.

These numbers track closely with data reported by the American Hospital Association earlier this year, which found that 92% of hospitals responding to its survey offered patients access to the medical records in 2015, up from just 43% in 2013. The AHA also found that 84% of hospitals allowed patients to download information from their records, 70% let patients suggest changes to their medical record and 70% had made it possible for patients to send a referral summary electronically.

All that being said, however, I find it a bit troubling that roughly 30% of hospitals aren’t offering the all three major functions mentioned above. It appears that a failure to offer patients the ability to share their data is what disqualifies most of the 31% from being included in the list of broadly-functioning data sharing candidates. And that’s just too bad.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a substantial subset of hospitals haven’t enabled such sharing, given that many still seem to see the data as proprietary. (I can’t prove this but I’ve heard many anecdotes to that effect.) But I’m still disappointed to find that many hospitals haven’t enabled such a lightweight model of interoperability.

Most Hospitals Offer Patients Online Access To Medical Records

Posted on July 27, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

New research from the American Hospital Association suggests that nearly all hospitals now offer individual patients online access to their medical records, and most offer them the ability to perform related tasks as well.

According to AHA research, 92% of hospitals gave patients access to their medical records in 2015, up from 43% in 2013. Also, 84% allowed them to download information from the record, 78% let them request changes to their record and 70% made it possible for them to send a referral summary. (The latter has seen the biggest change since 2013, as only 13% could send such a summary at that time.)

In addition, hospitals have begun giving patients the ability to schedule appointments, order prescription refills and pay bills. As the AHA notes, progress on this front isn’t universal, as organizations need to integrate data from revenue cycle, pharmacy and scheduling systems to make it happen. But as hospitals invest in integration engines they will have a greater ability to roll out these options.

As of 2015, 74% of hospitals let patients pay bills online, up from 56% in 2013. However, progress on other consumer-friendly functions has been slower. Only 45% of hospitals let patients schedule appointments online, a modest increase from 31% in 2013, and just 44% let patients refill prescriptions, up from 30% in 2013.

Meanwhile, hospitals are slowly but surely expanding tools letting patients communicate with physicians. The AHA found that 63% let patients securely message care providers, up from 55% in 2014, and 37% let patients submit self-generated data, a big jump from the 14% who did so in 2013.

All of this suggests that rollouts of patient portal tools are likely to continue well after Meaningful Use has landed in the dustbin. After all, research suggests that dollars spent on these technologies will pay off, especially under at-risk value-based care models.

For example, an eye-opening study appearing in Health Affairs found that use of patient-physician email at Kaiser Permanente is associated with a 2% to 6.5% improvement in HEDIS performance measures like HbA1c levels, cholesterol and blood press screening and control. The same study noted that users of its My Health Manager were 2.6 times more likely to remain KP members than non-users, a phenomenon which may well apply to providers.

On the other hand, hospitals need to evaluate any potential portal solutions carefully. According to a study by research firm Peer60, many solutions have serious limitations that could lead providers to violate state laws or limit parent and minor engagement. Also, some organizations might not be ready to support patients who have issues adequately. Concerns like these might explain why 28% of the 200 healthcare execs surveyed by Peer60 said they weren’t looking at portal technology at the moment.

Data Sharing Largely Isn’t Informing Hospital Clinical Decisions

Posted on July 6, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

Some new data released by ONC suggests that while healthcare data is being shared far more frequently between hospitals than in the past, few hospital clinicians use such data regularly as part of providing patient care.

The ONC report, which is based on a supplement to the 2015 edition of an annual survey by the American Hospital Association, concluded that 96% of hospitals had an EHR in place which was federally tested and certified for the Meaningful Use program. That’s an enormous leap from 2009, the year federal economic stimulus law creating the program was signed, when only 12.2% of hospitals had even a basic EHR in place.

Also, hospitals have improved dramatically in their ability to share data with other facilities outside their system, according to an AHA article from February. While just 22% of hospitals shared data with peer facilities in 2011, that number had shot up to 57% in 2014. Also, the share of hospitals exchanging data with ambulatory care providers outside the system climbed from 37% to 60% during the same period.

On the other hand, hospitals are not meeting federal goals for data use, particularly the use of data not created within their institution. While 82% of hospitals shared lab results, radiology reports, clinical care summaries or medication lists with hospitals or ambulatory care centers outside of their orbit — up from 45% in 2009 — the date isn’t having as much of an impact as it could.

Only 18% of those surveyed by the AHA said that hospital clinicians often used patient information gathered electronically from outside sources. Another 35% reported that clinicians used such information “sometimes,” 20% used it “rarely” and 16% “never” used such data. (The remaining 11% said that they didn’t know how such data was used.)

So what’s holding hospital clinicians back? More than half of AHA respondents (53%) said that the biggest barrier to using interoperable data integrating that data into physician routines. They noted that since shared information usually wasn’t available to clinicians in their EHRs, they had to go out of the regular workflows to review the data.

Another major barrier, cited by 45% of survey respondents, was difficulty integrating exchange information into their EHR. According to the AHA survey, only 4 in 10 hospitals had the ability to integrate data into their EHRs without manual data entry.

Other problems with clinician use of shared data concluded that information was not always available when needed (40%), that it wasn’t presented in a useful format (29%) and that clinicians did not trust the accuracy of the information (11%). Also, 31% of survey respondents said that many recipients of care summaries felt that the data itself was not useful, up from 26% in 2014.

What’s more, some technical problems in sharing data between EHRs seem to have gotten slightly worse between the 2014 and 2015 surveys. For example, 24% of respondents the 2014 survey said that matching or identifying patients was a concern in data exchange. That number jumped to 33% in the 2015 results.

By the way, you might want to check out this related chart, which suggests that paper-based data exchange remains wildly popular. Given the challenges that still exist in sharing such data digitally, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.

Critical Access, Small Hospitals Lagging In Meaningful Use

Posted on August 14, 2013 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

Many critical access hospitals and other smaller hospitals are falling behind on Meaningful Use and may be at risk for being slapped with Medicare reimbursement penalties in 2015, according to a study reported in Health Data Management.

The study, which appeared in the journal Health Affairs, was conducted by Mathematica Policy Research and the American Hospital Association.  Its bottom line conclusion was that smaller and rural hospitals were less likely than other hospitals to have met Stage 1 criteria, and that very few had all of the IT systems in place needed to reach Stage 2, HDM reports.

The researchers noted that between 2011 and 2012, the percentage of hospitals with at least 200 beds getting Meaningful Use almost doubled, but that those with less than 100 beds had a lower rate of Meaningful Use compliance. Meanwhile, the proportion of critical access hospitals that received a Meaningful Use payment in 2012 fell slightly from the previous year.

The study also concluded that teaching hospitals had a higher rate of Meaningful Use compliance than non-teaching hospitals, and that a small percentage of government-owned and non-profit hospitals received MU incentive payments compared with for-profit facilities.

According to Health Data Management, the study isolated three challenges faced by critical access and smaller hospitals:

* Low patient volume complicates long-range planning and limits ability to maintain adequate cash flow,

* The hospitals may not be able to offer competitive salaries for skilled information technology professionals, and

* Smaller hospitals may have difficulty finding a suitable I.T. vendor.

It’s not lost on the ONC that these hospitals face significant disadvantages in getting their Meaningful Use program rolling. About a year ago, the agency rolled out a campaign intended to get 1,000 critical access and small rural hospitals meaningfully using certified EMR technology by the end of 2014. To get things rolling, ONC is spending up to $30 million for Regional Extension Centers targeting these facilities.

But as I see it, funding more REC activity is far from enough. The plain fact is that mounting a Meaningful Use program is time consuming and expensive, so much so that some smaller hospitals simply make it happen without help. Maybe the time has come for the feds to offer grants outright to hospitals struggling with these challenges.

AHA, AMA Seek More Flexible Meaningful Use Requirements

Posted on July 30, 2013 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

The American Hospital Association and the American Medical Association have sent a joint letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking for more flexibility in the requirements for the Meaningful Use program, iHealthBeat reports.

The two trade groups, which called the program’s requirements “overly burdensome,” argue that as the current Meaningful Use program is structured, it’s too hard for some providers to keep up. “[W]e believe that the best way to move the program forward and ensure that no providers, particularly small and rural ones, are left behind is to realign the meaningful use program’s current requirements to ensure a safe, orderly transition to Stage 2,” the letter adds.

The letter makes four recommendations to improve the Meaningful Use program for providers, iHealthBeat notes:

* Let providers meet Stage 1 requirements using either a 2011- or 2014-certified EMR

* Set up a 90-day reporting period for the first year of each new stage of the program, applicable to all providers;

* Give providers increased flexibility to meet Stage 2 Meaningful Use requirements

* Extend each stage of the Meaningful Use  program to a minimum term of three years for all providers

The AHA submitted also submitted testimony to the Senate Finance Committee last week asking legislators to give providers more flexibility within the Meaningful Use program.

As things stand, unless current requirements for electronic clinical quality measures are changed, “clinicians [will be] spending extensive amounts of time working for the EHRs” rather than having the EMRs work for them, the trade group suggested.

As part of its testimony, the AHA presented case studies drawn from four separate hospitals. Based on the issues arising at these hospitals, the group recommended several changes to MU, including using fewer, better-tested electronic quality reporting measures, starting with Stage 2, and making EMRs and electronic clinical quality measure reporting tools more flexible to align data capture with the nuances of workflow.

Do We Need To Allow Hospitals To Donate EMRs?

Posted on May 28, 2013 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

Today I was looking through my Twitter inbox and found this complaint, by @lee_ritz:

EMR systems are putting private physician groups out of business–we can’t afford to compete with the big hospital groups.

Certainly, it’s hard to argue that some EMRs can put a big strain ( as much as $50K+ per doctor) on medical practices . And for those in low-margin specialties like primary care, perhaps that could be the death-blow financially. But are we at a point where we need to somehow pay for EMRs for small practices above and beyond Meaningful Use incentives?

One way to address this problem comes straight from the loving arms of the American Hospital Association.

Right now, the HHS Office of the Inspector General has proposed a rule which would extend the EMR safe harbor  — allowing hospitals to donate EMRs and health IT to practices and not face a kickback investigation — from the end of this year until December 31, 2106.  Looked at one way, that’s a pretty good offer, as it and gives both hospitals and medical practices the change to get those donated EMRs in place and situated while both sides iron out Meaningful Use issues.

The AHA is arguing that safe harbor protections should be made  permanent. Its executives argue that the safe harbor is a valuable tool for getting health IT into the hands of rural physicians; that with the donations, hospitals can provide the tech support, training and maintenance medical practices need to use EMRs properly; and that hospitals can donate EMRs to physicians across entire areas, ensuring interoperability.

The AHA also notes that not all providers are eligible for Meaningful Use incentives, and that new physicians, presumably needing hospital help to get their EMRs rolling, will begin to practice after the deadline has passed. And on top of all of this, the AHA letter to the OIG states, changes in interoperable technologies will require new donations going forward if doctors and hospitals are to stay connected.

Is this the solution to the problem of making sure cash-strapped smaller practices can afford to have powerful EMR technologies that connect with hospitals and peers?  It’s hard to say, but I do think there’s some merit to at least extending the protections further and keeping a close eye on what happens.

In this day and age, when getting EMRs into medical practices is such a key federal objective, it does seem to me that the hospitals deserve a generous turn at bat.  After all, the money has to some from somewhere.