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.

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.


Beyond Meaningful Use Lies a Game Changer for Specialists

 Beyond Meaningful Use Lies a Game Changer for SpecialistsI have frequently said that meaningful use is a primary-care program, and I still maintain that it was designed with primary-care physicians and their patients in mind. But I believe that specialists will be the greatest beneficiaries of Stage 2’s shift in focus to interoperability. If EHR vendors expand upon the groundwork laid by meaningful use, they will provide physicians with not only a reliable way to get information about their patients’ clinical history, but also an efficient way to reconcile that information and incorporate it into their charts.

As increasing amounts of discrete clinical data is shared between physicians—Stage 2 adds new elements to the Stage 1 required data set—many physicians will find themselves subject to significant workflow disruptions as they struggle to incorporate all of this data into their patient charts. The workflow impact is clearly greatest when the physician sees a new patient, so specialists—for whom new patients typically constitute 25–35% of their office visits—will feel the impact more intensely than primary-care physicians, who may see only a few new patients a week.

How does the physician get this data into the patients’ chart, and where should the data come from? While patients are a good source of demographic data, the primary-care physician is the best source of an authoritative and vetted record of the patient’s health history. Stage 2 of meaningful use creates standards that facilitate the transport of this clinical data from the primary-care physician to the specialist via the “Direct” messaging protocol—a secure e-mail-like exchange process. The data is sent in a standard format called the CCDA (Consolidated Clinical Document Architecture). But this is where meaningful use ends, leaving it up to the recipient of the data to incorporate it into the patient’s digital chart, and this can be time-consuming and disruptive to workflow if the process is not automated.

For physicians, having the tools to accomplish these tasks in an efficient, productivity-focused manner will be a veritable game changer. It will not be sufficient for an EHR to merely display the data from the primary-care physician. Rather, it will be critical for vendors to provide physicians with an efficient means of reconciling this data and automating the process of entering the approved discrete clinical data elements into the patients’ charts. The key for EHR vendors will be to go above and beyond the requirements specified by meaningful use.

Meaningful Use Stage 2: Did CMS Hear the Physicians? (Part 2)

Meaningful Use Stage 2: Did CMS Hear the Physicians? (Part 2)’ TimeIn my last post, I commended CMS for responding positively to many of the comments that were submitted regarding the Proposed Rule for Stage 2 of meaningful use. However, there were also troublesome areas that were acknowledged in the Final Rule, but addressed in a way that remains problematic for physicians. This post will review some of those issues.

Most notable are the two measures that make physicians’ incentives dependent on actions by patients—actions over which the physician does not have control. The Final Rule requires that:

  • More than 5% of all patients seen by the physician during the reporting period actually view, download, or transmit their available health information, and
  • More than 5% of patients seen send a secure message to the physician (containing health information, not just a request for an appointment).

The proposed rule had set the threshold at 10% for each of these measures. The response from the provider community was almost universal, arguing that no matter how much education, encouragement, and cajoling the practice provides to encourage this form of patient engagement, the physicians could not guarantee patient compliance. Alternatives were offered—my company suggested having the physician be the source of the messages, or holding him/her responsible for responding to a minimum percent of the messages received from patients. However, CMS held firm in its belief that it is incumbent upon the physician to encourage patients by offering an attractive, patient-friendly portal. By way of compromise, the Final Rule reduced the threshold from 10% to 5%, but this solution does not address the principle involved—i.e., the inequity of making the physician’s incentive dependent on the actions of patients. Just imagine if after successfully meeting all of the Stage 2 requirements for the 1,000 patients a physician saw during the reporting period, only 49 of the patients (instead of 50) actually viewed their information on the portal that the physician installed—his entire year’s incentive payment would be lost.

The menu set of measures is intended to afford physicians some flexibility—there are 6 measures from which they must select 3. Part of the rationale for this structure is to make meaningful use more meaningful for specialists. Yet in Stage 2, the menu measures that a physician is eligible to exclude will no longer count as being met, so many specialists will be left with no real choices at all—the menu measures become de facto core measures. Many specialists will find 3, or even 4, of the menu measures to be in that category—CMS acknowledges that syndromic surveillance is still premature, cancer registry reporting is likely irrelevant to most physicians, diagnostic images are only relevant to a few specialties, and many others will find no viable specialty registry to which to report so CMS “does not expect every EP to select this measure.” An ophthalmologist, for example, will have to report on the family history measure and the electronic progress note—not a measure they would choose if the menu were truly a menu.

Patient reminders is another measure that may be problematic for specialists who provide episodic care. Stage 2 requires the physician to send an appropriate reminder for follow-up or preventive care to 10% of the patients seen during the prior 24 months. No exclusion is available for physicians who see patients two or three times to treat a particular problem, but have no reason to ever recall the patient.

The above are examples of where CMS may have listened to the physicians, but didn’t really hear them. I hope that some further guidance related to these issues will be forthcoming to ensure that physicians are able to successfully demonstrate meaningful use in Stage 2.

Meaningful Use Stage 2: Did CMS Hear the Physicians?

Meaningful Use Stage 2: Did CMS Hear the Physicians?’ TimeKudos to CMS for responding positively and reasonably to many of the comments submitted by physicians and/or their professional organizations regarding the Proposed Rule for Stage 2 meaningful use. Of course, there were also a number of issues that could have been addressed more favorably from the providers’ perspective—and I will address those in my next EMR Straight Talk post—but I was pleasantly surprised to see the changes and the compromises that CMS did make that will benefit physicians.

The most significant concession was related to timing: in 2014, physicians will only report for a 90-day calendar quarter—rather than a full year, as originally intended. This should result in higher-quality, more-usable EHRs as vendors will have more time to develop, test, and certify their new versions. It also eliminates the fiasco that surely would have ensued for providers were they all to require upgrading by their vendors within a very small window of time. This new schedule also ensures that physicians will have the time they need to implement, and sufficiently train on, the new versions of their software, enhancing the likelihood that they will be able to successfully demonstrate meaningful use. The 90-day reporting period also provides some flexibility for those unfortunate physicians who hastily purchased an EHR in a rush to meet meaningful use and now find themselves dissatisfied with their decision—they will have down time that will make the replacement process easier.

I was also pleased to see several changes that address the reporting burden for physicians. Stage 2 offers a batch-reporting option—however, providers must still individually meet all of the meaningful use requirements—and it attempts to harmonize clinical quality measure reporting across the various government programs. These were two proposed concepts that physicians strongly endorsed in their comments.

Specialists particularly appreciate the Final Rule’s successful resolution to the challenges posed by the vital-signs measure currently in force—the new requirement unlinks the reporting of height and weight from the reporting of blood pressure. Beginning in 2013 (i.e., a year before Stage 2 even takes effect), physicians who find height and weight relevant to their practices (but not blood pressure) will be able to report the former while attesting to an exclusion for the latter. This will remove an irrelevant step in the workflow for many specialists.

While CMS did hear the physicians on these important issues, there are other areas that the Final Rule did not sufficiently address. I will discuss these in my next post.

HIT Policy Committee Focuses on Physicians

HIT Policy Committee Focuses on Physicians
A very positive conversation took place at yesterday’s HIT Policy Committee meeting, and it put the focus squarely on the physicians—a focus that in the past seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle.

The Committee was reviewing and finalizing its comments for submission to CMS on the Proposed Rule for Stage 2. A healthy debate ensued regarding who should have to enter the orders into the EHR to satisfy the CPOE requirements—the physician or a designated clinical staff member. In response to a suggestion that there were reasons for requiring the physician to personally enter the orders into the system, Neil Calman, MD, raised the discussion to another level by asking about the entire purpose of EHRs and meaningful use. Dr. Calman challenged his fellow committee members to think about how an EHR should be expected to change the way physicians practice—and how it should not. He asked why we would want to bog physicians down with tasks that other staff were already doing instead of helping physicians focus on the work that utilizes their highest skills and expertise.

The EHR incentives are definitely encouraging EHR adoption, but we should not lose sight of why increased adoption is such an important goal. The value of an EHR to a physician is not the $44,000 incentives—it is the potential for increased productivity and efficiency, better and safer patient care, and the ability to share information. It’s easy to get caught up in creating comprehensive measures that ensure that the interests of all stakeholders are met, and in doing so, to lose sight of the practical impact on physicians’ workflow. In the case of yesterday’s CPOE debate, the committee came up with a recommendation that preserves the intention of the CPOE measure—and meaningful use in general—while respecting the value of the physicians’ time. I hope this conversation will set the tone for future meaningful use deliberations.