Stage 2 Meaningful Use Delayed to 2014: What’s It Really About?

HHS has made it official—Stage 2 of meaningful use will be pushed back to 2014. The announcement by HHS Secretary Sebelius came as no surprise, following as it did the recommendation made by the HIT Policy Committee and the endorsement by ONC head Farzad Mostashari. The change only affects providers whose first incentive payment year is 2011, since they are the only providers who would be subject to Stage 2 regulations in 2013 had the delay not been implemented—everyone was already entitled to 2 years of meaningful use at Stage 1.

What I find interesting about all the hoopla that has accompanied the announcement is the spin the government put on the decision. According to the press release from HHS, “To encourage faster adoption, the Secretary announced that HHS intends to allow doctors and hospitals to adopt health IT this year, without meeting the new standards until 2014. Doctors who act quickly can also qualify for incentive payments in 2011 as well as 2012.”

Isn’t it a bit late for a provider to decide to adopt health IT this year? In reality, this announcement is too last-minute to change any adoption-related behavior or to accelerate EHR adoption. The announcement continued, “Perhaps most importantly, we want to provide an added incentive for providers attesting to meaningful use in 2011.” Apparently, the goal is to accelerate attestation rather than adoption—to encourage physicians who were already using certified EHR technology in a “meaningful way” to attest and to collect an incentive payment this year, instead of holding off attesting until 2012. This would create a potential PR benefit for the incentive program, which currently boasts nearly 115,000 registered providers, but reports that only 10,155 (9%), have successfully attested.

The benefit of the schedule delay accrues only to the early adopters, who now can earn 3 years of incentives under the less stringent requirements of Stage 1 (only, however, if they are willing to forego their 2011 Medicare ePrescribing bonuses—not a worthwhile trade-off for high-revenue physicians with large Medicare volumes). In its statement, HHS acknowledged the pushback from providers regarding how challenging even the Stage 1 requirements are. Perhaps, it would truly spur program participation and EHR adoption if all providers—not just the early adopters—were entitled to 3 years of meaningful use under Stage 1 rules. Also, if CMS has so little confidence that physicians will succeed at Stage 2, shouldn’t it reconsider how much it plans to raise the bar?

Government EHR Program: Potentially Harmful Unintended Consequences

I am really intrigued by the latest creation from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Last week, HHS announced a contract to set up a group of experts to identify and attempt to fix any “undesirable” and “potentially harmful unintended consequences” that result from the stimulus legislation’s EHR incentives. According to the announcement, which was posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website: “Historical experience, as well as mounting evidence of unexpected problems, demands that we consider potential downsides.”

My curiosity is piqued! What are the unexpected consequences the government anticipates, and why is HHS so concerned? Awaiting the report from the panel of experts, I started thinking—and it didn’t take me long to create a list of my own.

My top three unintended consequences are the following: (If you’d like to suggest other potential unanticipated consequences—positive or negative—please submit a comment at the bottom of this page.)

  • There will be more EHR failures than successes, particularly among high-performance specialists.
  • “Certification” will stifle innovation.
  • Productivity and physician-focused EHRs will lead the market among high-performance physicians.

More EHR Failures:

After an initial peak in implementations, long-term EHR adoption will slow—particularly among high-performance specialists—and the current failure rate will escalate. Many factors will contribute to this: (1) Some physicians will rush into EHR purchases without conducting proper due diligence. (2) Products that were overly complex and did not work in busy specialists’ practices in the past will surely not succeed now, particularly since these same products must now be used in an even more structured and demanding way. (3) Sorely needed implementation and training will be provided by inexperienced and rushed implementation teams, further reducing the likelihood of success with providers, many of whom are less technologically savvy than the early adopters. (4) Where there was never a convincing economic justification in the past, the addition of data-collection requirements will further lessen the economic feasibility of traditional, point-and-click EHRs. (5) Physicians will try to transfer data entry tasks to scribes and other lower-cost employees (assuming that the regulations allow CPOE to be done by other than the ordering provider), but this strategy will not make economic sense, either, since the additional costs will outweigh the government incentives. The result? The high failure rate will leave physicians “holding the bag” after investing large sums of money, failing to earn the anticipated incentives, and owning a system that doesn’t meet their needs.

“Certification” will stifle innovation:

Innovation will suffer, as it did in the past when many EHR vendors devoted all their development resources to complying with the long list of CCHIT-certification requirements. Forcing all vendors seeking certification to meet the same criteria will surely sap the drive for innovation. As vendors burn through precious development resources to meet evolving government standards instead of improving their core product, they will fail to respond to the interests of their customers, i.e., the physicians. Sales and marketing will drive physicians’ choices, rather than the EHR products themselves. Large companies, which have the largest sales organizations and marketing budgets, will be successful in the short term. Smaller vendors who follow the herd instead of their entrepreneurial and innovative instincts will be driven out of the market.

Productivity and physician-focused EHRs will lead the market:

The good news is that innovation will triumph in the end. Alternative solutions—like the hybrid EMR—will prevail as high-performance physicians find success with products that focus on their needs and enhance their productivity. It will take 4 to 5 years for physicians who have experienced government-program EHR failures to reapproach the market after amortizing their losses. These physicians will seek products that focus on clinical-workflow efficiency and physician productivity. The long-term winners in the EHR market will be those vendors who resist the temptation to chase the “windfall” stemming from the stimulus legislation, and instead focus on improving their products to deliver these benefits.

Please share your thoughts on other possible unintended consequences by submitting a comment below.

An Open Letter to HHS Secretary Sebelius

We are very encouraged that the Voice of the Physician Petition has been acknowledged at the highest levels of government. After HHS (Department of Health and Human Services) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius received the petition that SRS sent to her—and simultaneously hand delivered to the HIT Policy Committee—Secretary Sebelius asked Dr. Blumenthal to respond to me. As head of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, Dr. Blumenthal chairs the HIT Policy Committee and, together with Secretary Sebelius, will accept or modify the recommendations on “meaningful use” and EHR certification that come from that committee and from CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services). In the interest of continuing this conversation, I am extending the following invitation to Secretary Sebelius, as I already have to Dr. Blumenthal:

Dear Secretary Sebelius:

I received Dr. Blumenthal’s letter and was glad to hear that you appreciate the input provided in the Voice of the Physician Petition. The ability of the EHR incentives to successfully encourage widespread adoption of EHRs is inextricably linked to the belief by physicians that EHR technology is of benefit to them, as well as to all the other stakeholders in the healthcare delivery system.

I would like to arrange a brief meeting with you to discuss these very important issues in person. As the CEO of SRS, with 12 years of experience listening to and working with front-line physicians, I can offer you some valuable insights into what community-based physicians are looking for and how they perceive the legislation—likely a different perspective than that being presented by committee members.

SRSsoft was recently named to the Inc. 5000 list of most rapidly growing companies, and was identified as one of the top 100 healthcare companies. Our success and growth is directly attributable to the fact that our EMR development is driven entirely by the needs of private-practice physicians.

As the representative of thousands of physicians who want their voices heard—SRS clients and non-clients alike—I would be happy to come to Washington to talk with you. I am confident that you would find the conversation valuable.

Challenge EMR Vendors to “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is”

Change has arrived. The government, through the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), will provide an incentive if you purchase and meaningfully use a “government” EMR. The problem is that the HHS incentive will only pay for the type of systems that have a dismal track record with busy, high-volume physicians.

Landmark studies have demonstrated that government EMRs, (traditional, CCHIT-style EMRs), impose financial hardship on physicians. There does not exist a single landmark study that concludes otherwise. Just ask any government EMR vendor to prove otherwise with any landmark study that meets the “smell test”:

  • The study is either large in scale or by a venerable, nationally recognized institution.
  • The study is not vendor funded.
  • The study must specifically address physician productivity. Studies that claim benefits of EMR accruing to other industry stakeholders are not relevant.

Before embarking on an expensive and risky venture into the world of government EMRs, you owe it to yourself to be 100% sure that the system is usable and adoptable for your unique practice. If you are not able to prove to CMS that you are a “meaningful user” of the EMR technology, the entire cost of an expensive EMR purchase will rest on your shoulders.

How do you make sure that your investment in a government EMR will perform just as the sales rep promises and bring your practice into the digital world, while receiving payments from the government? Easy. Insist that the vendor puts its money where its mouth is.

Before investing heavily in a government EMR, know ahead of time whether or not you will be successful. Have the vendor prove to you that they can get 2 physicians in your practice live on their system. To be fair, no money should exchange hands—only time. The two physicians and their staff will invest their valuable time learning the system and the vendor will invest its valuable time implementing and training. If, after a 30-day trial period, you are happy and can see that practice-wide implementation of the government EMR is feasible, then you sign a contract with the confidence that the investment is worthwhile. If you feel that the government EMR is not right for you, then the government EMR vendor removes the system from your office and a financial disaster is averted.

The power of this arrangement is that the government EMR vendor, whose sales rep promises the world, actually has to back up its claims with a fair trial by you, the “real-world user.” If the product does not perform as you expect, then you will not suffer the loss of a substantial investment. Go ahead and make the government EMR vendor “put its money where its mouth is.”