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EHR Incentive Program: A Progress Report

EHR Incentive Program: A Progress Report

When family physician Christopher Tashjian attested for Stage 1 of CMS' "meaningful use" program bright and early on April 18, 2011, most other practices hadn't even picked out an EHR.

By April 2012, as few as one in five providers had attested, according to CMS' count.

The purpose of the meaningful use program, and the stimulus dollars attached to it, was to digitize America's healthcare-recordkeeping system — creating a data-based boon, say proponents, for providers and public health advocates alike. But the program got off to a slow start, and questions have emerged about the efficacy of the program and its administration by the government.

Is the incentive program working as it was intended? Let’s look at the details — past, present, and future — to find out.

The EHR incentive: a look back

CMS published the final rule for its Medicare and Medicaid EHR incentive programs to the Federal Register on July 28, 2010. Enacted in the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act — part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, aka the federal stimulus — the nearly 300-page rule outlines how "eligible professionals" (EP) and hospitals can qualify for incentive payments for demonstrating meaningful use of a certified EHR.

The first step in receiving the money (a maximum of $44,000 paid over the course of five years) is to attest that during a 90-day reporting period, providers used their EHR in a meaningful way by fulfilling 15 core requirements (such as maintaining an active medication-allergy list for more than 80 percent of patients), five out of 10 menu set objectives (such as implementing drug-formulary checks), and six clinical quality measures (such as adult weight screening and follow-up).

This represents just Stage 1 of the three-stage program. To receive the full financial incentive, CMS requires the completion of all three stages. (CMS has also outlined a separate program for providers who wish to qualify through Medicaid. For details, visit http://go.cms.gov/MedicaidStateInfo.)

To help small practices, the government's Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), has so far awarded more than $720 million through 62 Regional Extension Centers. The RECs provide free and low-cost assistance to qualifying practices to ease their EHR transition and help them achieve meaningful use.

EHRs by the numbers

What does CMS have to show for all of this effort? The government's figures show it is now meeting its objectives, despite getting off to a slow start.

CMS finished 2011 well below its stated objectives of at least 40,000 meaningful users attesting via the Medicare program and 21,100 meaningful users via Medicaid. The actual numbers at the end of last year: 15,361 for Medicare and 15,439 for Medicaid. But the government says it has already closed the gap between its projections and the reality: As of May 31, 2012, 110,000 providers (roughly one out of five eligible for the program) have received some portion of the more than $5.7 billion paid out so far to hospitals and providers under one of the two programs, according to CMS. How did CMS go from about 30,000 meaningful users to more than 110,000 in only five months? It did not respond to our request for an explanation, but if its most-recent data are correct, then it is now on track to meet its goals of between 48,700 and 154,700 meaningful users under Medicare, and between 34,000 and 93,700 under Medicaid by the end of 2012.

If it meets its most ambitious objectives, about half of America's eligible providers will be meaningfully using an EHR by the end of the year.

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