Kudos to CMS for MU 2014 Proposed Rule

Lynn Scheps

Lynn Scheps

VP, Government Affairs & Consulting Services at SRS Health
Lynn Scheps is a leading resource on meaningful use and the EHR incentives. She is the SRS liaison with government policy makers. Representing the voice of high-performance physicians, she develops strategies to respond effectively to government initiatives.
Lynn Scheps

Doctors clappingYou can hear the sigh of relief—albeit mixed with a bit of uncertainty-driven anxiety—as physicians await publication of the final rule that will modify meaningful use in 2014. By relaxing the timeline, the government has finally acknowledged what so many stakeholders have been arguing for a while: Stage 2 and upgrading to a 2014 Certified EHR simply required too much of providers, too quickly. The paltry number of Stage 2 attestations to date is evidence enough—by May, only 50 physicians had attested to Stage 2; by June, just 447 had succeeded; and by July (mid-way into the year), the number had reached only 972. To put these numbers in context, over 378,000 providers have earned EHR incentives for Stage 1.

The major challenges that prompted the government’s reconsideration of the meaningful use timeline are reflected in the 1,184 comments submitted to CMS—some of which express frustration with the demands of the program in general, but almost all of which wholeheartedly support the proposed changes. (My comments, submitted on behalf of SRS physicians, are available here.) The following are the most common challenges cited:

  • Availability of 2014 Certified EHR Technology (CEHRT) – But it’s not just about the products that are not yet certified or about vendors with insufficient resources to keep up with the demand for implementations. Many of the products that have been certified were rushed out under overly aggressive and unrealistic timeframes, which has left physicians faced with not-ready-for-primetime software.
  • Overestimation of market readiness for interoperability – Sufficient infrastructure is not in place yet, so even physicians who have implemented the DIRECT messaging capability cannot find enough “trading partners” with whom they can connect to share information.
  • Dependence on non-participating parties – It takes an extraordinary amount of effort to successfully coordinate with labs, radiology providers, long-term care facilities, and registries, who are not required to conform to standards promulgated under meaningful use.
  • Reluctance of patients to embrace portal utilization – The two portal measures (patients accessing clinical information and sending messages to physicians) are cited by many commenters as the major obstacle to MU success. Changing patient behavior in this regard is turning out to be even harder to accomplish than previously anticipated.
  • Excessive workflow challenges – Meaningful use necessitates operational changes to practice workflows that are, in the words of one commenter, “daunting, at best.”

The options proposed in the rule are summarized in a handy CMS Decision Tool and include reporting Stage 1 again, instead of Stage 2, and attesting using either a 2011 or 2014 CEHRT.

So what can physicians expect and what would be a good strategy to pursue as they wait for the final rule? CMS is promising—or at least hoping—to publish the final rule in early September. The 60-day comment period ended on July 21, and CMS is obligated to read and consider all of the comments before issuing the final rule. However, I think it is reasonable for physicians to assume that the final rule will be at least as flexible as the proposed rule—maybe even more so. CMS has been asked by many commenters to definitively spell out the conditions under which physicians could avail themselves of the various reporting options, which would address the uncertainty created by the lack of clarity in the proposed rule.

In the meantime, physicians should plan to attest for any quarter during which they have met all of the requirements under one of the options provided for in the proposed rule. It can even be a quarter that precedes the publication of the final rule. They should then aggressively turn their attention to upgrading to 2014 CEHRT—if they have not done so already—and to preparing for Stage 2. Remember: as flexible as the rule may be, it only offers a 3-month reprieve. Physicians who were to be at Stage 2 in 2014 must now be ready to start a full year of reporting on Stage 2, using a 2014 CEHRT, on January 1, 2015.

Test Your Meaningful Use IQ – Stage 2 and 2014

Meaningful Use Stage 2 IQ TestFor many physicians pursuing the EHR incentives, 2014 means moving on to Stage 2 of meaningful use. Stage 2 is much more complex than Stage 1, with higher thresholds for most Stage 1 measures; core (i.e., mandatory) requirements that were formerly menu (i.e., optional); and totally new measures related to interoperability and patient engagement that will require revised workflows. It’s not too early to start learning about Stage 2, and I would suggest that physicians and their staff members take advantage of the abundant educational opportunities that already exist. CMS has produced helpful tipsheets and guides for providers, and you should expect your EHR vendor to offer comprehensive training programs on Stage 2. Another good way to learn about the new requirements is to attend a webinar—there are many, and I invite you to attend one of my company’s webinars that will prepare you well for 2014.

In the meantime, test your basic knowledge of 2014 and Stage 2 by taking this quiz. If you have any questions of your own, please comment below and I will be happy to respond.

Meaningful Use Breathing Room Appears on the Horizon

Meaningful Use Breathing Room Appears on the HorizonAmid the abundant (and yet unanswered) pleas from all quarters to extend or delay Stage 2 comes some potential good news about the scheduling of Stage 3: It’s becoming clearer and clearer that Stage 3 won’t start for anyone before 2017—at the earliest.

Although I have not seen any formal announcements by CMS or ONC confirming this, a recent legislative update from the EHRA (the HIMSS EHR vendor association) reported that the proposed rule on Stage 3 is not expected until late 2014. There are many steps and a defined timeline that transpire between the release of a proposed rule and implementation of the final regulations in the field. First, there is a 90-day comment period, during which all stakeholders have the opportunity to express their support and/or concerns about every aspect of the proposed rule. Then, the government needs another 90 days or so to consider each comment and create the final rule, in which it responds to these comments. That takes us to mid-2015. To give the EHR vendors anything short of 18 months to complete product development, test usability, deploy their upgraded software, and train their clients would meet with overwhelming resistance. Implementation of Stage 3 before 2017 would be highly unlikely.

This breathing room is a good thing for physicians. As I have discussed in prior EMR Straight Talk blogs, meaningful use has essentially stifled innovation by driving EHR vendors to focus the lion’s share of their development efforts on government requirements. Now physicians will benefit from the vendors’ ability to deliver the innovative workflow enhancements that providers need, and they will have time to hone their workflows to more efficiently meet the government’s requirements.

The Meaningful Use Train is Simply Moving Too Fast

The Meaningful Use Train is Simply Moving Too FastAs 2014 draws closer and the realities of meaningful use Stage 2 set in, many stakeholders are experiencing an increasing and justifiable level of anxiety about the consequences of a program that is advancing too rapidly. Following on the heels of the letter from a group of senators to the secretary of HHS that suggested a “pause” in the meaningful use program, there has been a recent avalanche of pleadings for a delay of Stage 2. These have come from such venerable groups as the AMA and AHA, MGMA, AAFP, HIMSS (the Healthcare IT industry organization), and CHIME (College of Healthcare Information Management Executives), all of which represent sizeable and varied constituencies.

The proposals offer a range of suggestions, and their solutions vary in scope and complexity, but the message is clear, consistent, and undeniable: the meaningful use train is simply moving too fast, and the future success of the program depends on an application of the brakes.

Recommendations include variations on the following:

  • Delay the start of Stage 2.
  • Expand the period for Stage 2 compliance (attestation) by up to a year.
  • Suspend the penalties, at least for those physicians who have successfully attested to Stage 1.
  • Add some needed flexibility by relaxing the “all or nothing” requirements for demonstrating meaningful use.
  • Extend the schedule so that physicians have 3 years at each stage before moving to the next.

Some lay the blame on the EHR vendors, citing lack of preparedness. To some extent they are correct—the certification website reveals that only 15 complete ambulatory EHRs from 12 different vendors have been certified for 2014 and Stage 2 so far—that’s just 3% of the 472 EHRs that were available to physicians in Stage 1. While some physicians will be left without a certified EHR in 2014, it is likely that the remaining major vendors will manage to get their EHRs certified by the end of the year. The fact remains, however, that more time before deployment can only improve the (sorely lacking) usability of the final products. One only has to look at the low average KLAS scores—now in the mid-70s—to appreciate the effects of rushed software development and implementation. Without a relaxing of the timeline, many physicians will be left with EHRs that are certified, but unusable.

The EHR Incentive Program is suffering, and its long-term success is at stake. A full 17% of the physicians who attested for the first year of Stage 1 failed to attest for the second incentive payment. (See “Alarming Fact” EMR Straight Talk post.) They simply could not sustain the use of their certified EHR—with which they were already familiar—for a full year of compliance with the complex rules of meaningful use—with which they were also already familiar. Unless we stop and evaluate why this is happening and make the necessary adjustments, the dropout rate is guaranteed to rise with Stage 2.

We have to stop and assess where we are trying to go in light of where we are now. Stage 3 is hurtling toward the final proposal without the benefit of any experience in Stage 2. The measure of the program’s success cannot continue to be the number of dollars paid in incentives, but should rather be providers’ satisfaction with the EHRs that they have been encouraged to adopt.

 

17% Meaningful Use Dropout Rate—Just the Tip of the Iceberg

17% Meaningful Use Dropout Rate—Just the Tip of the Iceberg

My last EMR Straight Talk post, which addressed the alarming 17% meaningful use dropout rate, generated many comments and resulted in several subsequent media interviews. While CMS has acknowledged the facts regarding this program failure, it does not acknowledge the gravity of the implications for the future of the program. According to a Bloomberg News article, CMS attributes the fallout to many of the same reasons that I have identified from the outset—program complexity, lack of fit with specialty practices, cost, dissatisfaction with EHRs, and inability to meet the meaningful use requirements.

To evaluate the program’s future, it is necessary to understand why physicians participate in meaningful use to begin with, and what their motivation would be to continue to participate once they have purchased a certified EHR and recouped $18,000 of its cost. A simple financial analysis begs the question: Why would physicians do dramatically more work for significantly less money?

One only has to look at the math to predict the future. As the table below illustrates, the financial value of the incentives drops by a factor of 10 at the same time that the program requirements increase precipitously. If 17% of physicians abandoned the program when the incentives fell from $6,000 to $1,000 per month of meaningful use effort, what should we realistically expect to happen when the incentives drop even further and the complexity increases?

Total $ Value of Participating in the EHR Incentive Program


*Estimate based on annual Medicare revenue of $300,000. Penalty = 1% in 2015, 2% in 2016

I am certainly not saying that physicians are only motivated by money—of course they want to do the right thing and provide the best possible care for their patients. And shunning meaningful use does not preclude them from leveraging their certified EHRs to exchange clinical data with other providers. But physicians have been quite outspoken about their concerns from the beginning, expressing their perception of the program as overly burdensome, wasteful, and distracting from their mission to provide that care. Now, the evidence is in—they are not just speaking, but they are walking. Clearly, to ensure the ongoing success of meaningful use, the government must fundamentally reduce the program’s complexity.

Alarming Fact: Meaningful Use Dropout Rate at a Staggering 17%

Alarming Fact: Meaningful Use Dropout Rate at a Staggering 17%Here’s an alarming fact: the meaningful use dropout rate is already 17%.

A recently published assessment of the government’s April EHR attestation data revealed that 17% of the providers who earned an $18,000 EHR incentive in 2011 did not earn the $12,000 second incentive in 2012. Although the analysis was performed by the venerable Wells Fargo, my immediate response was, “That’s impossible! They must have miscalculated the data.”

So I crunched the numbers for myself, and to my astonishment, the conclusion is absolutely correct. A staggering 17% of the providers who succeeded at demonstrating meaningful use for 90 days were unable to sustain that performance for a full year—the second required reporting period—despite the fact that the program’s requirements remained exactly the same and the providers already had the necessary workflows in place to support those requirements. What makes this fact even more troubling is that the 2011 attesters were typically the early EHR adopters and therefore most experienced in the use of the technology.

A 17% loss rate in any business is wholly unacceptable, and this failure does not portend well for the future of the EHR Incentive Program. If $12,000 proved to be insufficient motivation for physicians with meaningful use experience to meet the relatively low requirements of Stage 1 on an ongoing basis, it would be foolish to expect physicians to muster the wherewithal to meet the increasingly demanding requirements of Stage 2. The incentive for a year’s performance at that point will be a mere $4,000.

Compounding this finding is the fact that 14% of physicians who attested to Stage 1 have already stated that they have no intention of attesting to Stage 2, according to another recent survey. And we can be sure that this number will rise as physicians begin to familiarize themselves with the labyrinthine requirements. If physicians are not motivated by the remaining incentives, it’s equally clear that the imposition of penalties for noncompliance will yield no better results. There is already a groundswell of objections to the penalties, including a bill introduced in the House seeking numerous exemptions, letters from AMA and AHA, etc.

So, is this the beginning of the end of meaningful use? What is keeping physicians from continuing to participate in the program? Are they bailing or failing? In either case, it is just too complicated—physicians are demonstrating that they are not willing to divert their attention from treating patients to consistently devoting the time necessary to keep track of the myriad measures on which they must successfully report. Instead of making meaningful use increasingly complex, we need to simplify it—focus on interoperability and leave the physicians and their clinical staffs to practice medicine. If we do not, the entire program will go down the drain. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater!

Senators Say Meaningful Use Program Needs Rebooting

Senators Say Meaningful Use Program Needs RebootingThis week, six senators released a white paper, Reboot: Re-examining the Strategies Needed to Successfully Adopt Health IT, that argues that there is no evidence that the $32 billion in taxpayers’ money being spent on meaningful use is returning the results it was designed to deliver. Although it would be naïve to discount the political motivation of the authors—all six being Republicans—they raise some of the same criticisms and concerns that I have written about in the past. They also make some claims that I feel compelled to dispute.

The senators have it right on these issues:

  • The success of the EHR incentives program should not be measured by the amount of money spent, yet every month CMS issues a report boasting how many billions of dollars have been paid in incentives. This is, of course, a proxy for EHR adoption and meaningful use attestations, but it says nothing about the impact on quality or cost of care—the motivation behind supporting EHR adoption.
  • The program is being propelled forward too quickly. It was the right move to delay Stage 2 for a year, but the requirements were set in stone long before a detailed evaluation could be made of the successes, challenges, and failures of Stage 1.
  • Program sustainability will be a challenge. The costs of participation are increasing for providers, given the added demands of Stage 2; for example, they will have to pay for interfaces to registries and HIEs and they will need to purchase a portal, if one is not provided by their EHR. As out-of-pocket costs rise, incentives decrease. This, combined with the challenges posed by the program moving too fast, will cause many physicians to abandon participation, which will threaten the program’s ability to deliver results.
  • There is no question that the proliferation of government programs with which physicians must contend has made compliance a challenge. The legislation is so complex and the requirements so cumbersome that they are diverting physicians’ attention from patient care.

I vociferously disagree, however, with the senators’ criticism regarding interoperability. Of course, we are not there yet—and clearly they are frustrated by that fact—but progress is underway toward that universally supported goal. Contrary to their claim that there are no meaningful use measures that require interoperability, there are in fact several in Stage 2, including the requirement that physicians electronically send a patient care summary for 10% of patients transitioned to the care of another physician or provider. This exchange is facilitated by the fact that all certified EHRs must communicate using the same formats.

Not only does interoperability relate to provider-to-provider communication, but it also allows for easy integration between products of different vendors, without requiring additional programming. I was recently speaking with another HIT vendor about a potential partnership arrangement, and we both talked the same language—XDR Direct for transport protocol and CCDA or HL7 in terms of content. This conversation would neither have been possible, nor would we be able to create a tight, simple interface between our products, were it not for the standards promulgated by the EHR incentive program. This kind of interoperability will ultimately be better for physicians and for their patients. The EHRA (EHR vendor association of HIMSS) hit the nail on the head: the appropriate role for government is to set the standards, but then the vendors should be free to innovate and let the market take over from there.