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?

Physicians: Don’t Count on EHR Support from Hospitals

Anthony Guerra, noted HIT industry blogger and editor of HealthSystemCIO, has written extensively about the pressures and stresses facing hospital Chief Information Officers (CIOs) due to the myriad government programs making demands on their skills and their time. His recent survey revealed that a mere 16% of CIOs manage to maintain a relatively normal workweek of 40–49 hours, while 35% report working over 60 hours per week. In my opinion, the current level of stress extends throughout all levels of the IT staff—a sentiment echoed at today’s HIT Policy Committee meeting as they evaluated the recommendations for Stage 2 meaningful use.

This is not surprising. In the midst of upgrading to meet meaningful use requirements—a bigger challenge for many hospitals than originally anticipated—IT departments are expected to simultaneously prepare their facilities to comply with the impending 5010 requirements and convert their systems from ICD-9 to ICD-10. Also looming in the not-too-distant future are the newly defined Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs), which will require significant and expanded data and reporting capabilities. All of this is compounded by a shortage of IT professionals in the healthcare arena.

So how does this relate to private-practice physicians—the constituency on whom I typically focus? I’ve cautioned in a previous post, One Size Does Not Fit All, about the mismatch between the EHR needs of hospitals and of physicians in private practice. Physicians should also be wary of adopting their hospital’s EHR if they are doing so with the expectation that the hospital’s IT resources will be at their disposal. They will be sadly disappointed—supporting private practice physicians, particularly specialists, will be low on the list of priorities for IT staff when their plates are already overflowing.

Stage 2 Meaningful Use: What Do You Think?

At this week’s HIT Policy Committee meeting, the Meaningful Use Workgroup presented its Stage 2 thinking to date, based on the 422 comments they received on their initial proposal. As discussed in a previous EMR Straight Talk post, the issue at the forefront is timing—with providers and vendors expressing significant practical concerns, and consumer groups pushing for rapid advancement.

The workgroup presented the following options for consideration by the Policy Committee. (I invite you to voice your opinion by responding to the poll below.)

  1. Maintain current timeline. Stage 2 would begin in 2013 for providers who demonstrate meaningful use in 2011. Providers who first demonstrate meaningful use in 2012 would have until 2014 to meet the Stage 2 requirements.
  2. Maintain the current timeline (as above), but allow a 90-day reporting period, instead of a full year, when providers are first governed by Stage 2 requirements. This would give providers until October 1 to begin their first year at Stage 2, instead of January 1—a nine-month delay.
  3. Delay Stage 2 by one year, allowing providers 3 years instead of 2 years at Stage 1. This means that the earliest any provider would have to meet Stage 2 expectations would be 2014.
  4. Phased-in approach separating existing from new functionalities:
    – Stage 2a (2013) would increase thresholds for measures for which the functionality already exists, (required to meet Stage 1), adding only new clinical quality measures.
    – Stage 2b (2014) would add new measures that require new EHR functionalities .

The responses from various HIT Policy Committee members covered the gamut.

  • Some were in favor of moving aggressively at all costs, presenting various arguments such as: (a) If we don’t pressure providers now, we will face the exact same issues at the next stage; (b) More extensive data capture does nothing to move us towards Stage 3 goals; and (c) We cannot just address the physicians’ workflow problems and ignore the challenges patients face in dealing with the current, difficult-to-navigate healthcare system.
  • Other Committee members, like Gayle Harrell, cautioned against trying to do too much too quickly—as she has from the outset—and stressed the long-term value to the program of setting providers up for success. Pushing them too hard could cause them to drop out after they earn the bulk of the incentives associated with Stage 1.
  • The phased-in approach was perceived as creative, but I was surprised that there was not much discussion about the administrative complexities this plan creates—to say nothing of the challenge of conveying it to providers.


Meaningful Use Stage 2–Physicians’ Opinions Count Most

The HIT Policy Committee’s Meaningful Use Workgroup met this week to begin discussing the question that I posed at the end of my EMR Straight Talk post last week, i.e., how to reconcile the various stakeholders’ positions regarding Stage 2 meaningful use. Most of the feedback received by the workgroup in response to its request for comments relate to issues surrounding timing, with providers and vendors urging restraint, and consumer groups (representing patients and payers) pushing for more aggressive timelines.

Given the statutory constraints (i.e., changes to the law itself would require Congressional action, a path the workgroup will not pursue), the options are limited—and each carries consequences for the program’s long-term goals. The workgroup acknowledged the concerns of vendors regarding the time needed to adequately and safely develop and deploy any new required functionality. They also appreciated the impact on providers of the implementation and training demands associated with upgrading technology, particularly at a time when providers are facing other IT challenges such as ICD-10 and HIPAA 5010. The workgroup considered the following options:

  • Option 1: Slow down the program’s pace by not adding any new measures and functionalities to Stage 2, but merely increasing the thresholds related to Stage 1 measures.
  • Option 2: Delay the start of Stage 2 by allowing each provider more time at Stage 1 or by basing the initiation of Stage 2 on the overall level of provider compliance/success in Stage 1.
  • Option 3: Shorten the first year’s reporting period to 90 days when providers progress to Stage 2.

The workgroup identified the following as the problems associated with each of the above proposals:

  • Option 1 (no new measures) will not get the program where it needs to be rapidly enough. It does not advance the program past data capture and towards the program’s goals: interoperability; “advancing clinical processes” (the goal of Stage 2); or improving outcomes (the goal of Stage 3).
  • Option 2 (delay Stage 2) raised the concern that extending Stage 2 will set a precedent for delaying Stage 3. The dwindling financial incentives and the lack of positive incentives after 2016 could reduce interest in Stage 2 or make it difficult for the program as a whole to ever progress past Stage 2, given that there are no positive incentives available after 2016.
  • Option 3 (90-day reporting period) does nothing to resolve the vendors’ concerns about the timeline for development.

Another critical issue to be addressed is how to increase the relevance of the EHR program to specialists, which will be the subject of a special hearing on May 13—similar to the hearing that solicited their input for Stage 1. Of all of the stakeholders, physicians are the most critical to the attainment of the EHR program’s goals. Physicians—primary care and specialists alike—are the cornerstone of the program, and their participation beyond Stage 1 will depend on the development of a set of reasonable and achievable requirements.

Meaningful Use Stage 2: Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace

A preliminary set of recommendations for defining Stage 2 meaningful use was released by the Meaningful Use Workgroup of the HIT Policy Committee earlier this month in the form of a Request for Comment—the deadline for comments is February 25. The decision-makers in Washington clearly realize the value of securing buy-in from providers, having received over 2,000 comments to the proposed Stage 1 rule when it was issued last year. As a result of those lobbying efforts, which included the Voice of the Physician Petition that we circulated on EMR Straight Talk, CMS made changes that accommodated the specialists and made participation realistic for them.

This is the opportunity for physicians to have a voice in Stage 2 before the final recommendations are submitted to CMS this summer. This request comes very early in the process of developing and finalizing the requirements—the workgroup will consider the comments and then present its recommendations to the HIT Policy Committee, which will review and revise and then forward them to CMS, which will issue the final rule. So for this stage, providers have the chance to provide input well before recommendations become set in stone.

Since most providers haven’t even embarked on Stage 1, and many are not yet conversant in the rules and requirements for that stage (as evidenced by the results of the Meaningful Use IQ Test), the following are highlights of the proposed recommendations. Note that clinical quality measures are not discussed—they will be the subject of a separate set of recommendations.

  • The proposal does not address the excludability of non-relevant measures. I assume its retention is implied, but it is important to comment on the need to keep these options in place. This was a very valuable modification added to Stage 1, particularly for specialists.
  • Disappointingly, Stage 2 still does not define meaningful use in a way that adds value for many specialists, and a way that will keep them engaged once the significant portion of the incentives have been collected.
  • Menu measures will become core measures, so the measures physicians choose to defer in Stage 1 will be mandatory in Stage 2. Some of these measures pose challenges for specialists, e.g. sending reminders to 20% of patients may not be reasonable for certain specialists such as orthopaedists or ENT physicians, because they provide episodic care.
  • Most of the changes involve increased thresholds for satisfying the measures, e.g., CPOE increases from 30% to 60%, ePrescribing from 40% to 60%, etc. These changes should not present a challenge since the software and relevant workflows will already be in place from Stage 1.
  • There are several new measures, such as adding lab or radiology to CPOE and including online secure patient messaging.

To voice your thoughts on this initial set of recommendations, go to www.regulations.gov and click “Submit a Comment”. Don’t say they didn’t ask!