Business & Lobbying

Medicare eases providers’ electronic record requirements

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) on Tuesday significantly eased the requirements for providers moving to adopt electronic health records that some had complained were too strict.

CMS scaled back how often doctors and hospitals will have to use electronic tools to qualify for federal incentive payments. And it also cut the number of “meaningful use” benchmarks providers will need to meet to tap those funds.

{mosads}The benchmarks are designed to ensure that doctors and hospitals don’t just purchase the new equipment, but use it to improve patient care.

The new guidelines are being welcomed by some provider groups, which were leery that the proposed guidelines, issued in December, were too stringent.

“The final rule takes important steps to provide a framework for the seamless flow of patient information for hospitals and clinicians that will transform the medical care of Americans,” Chip Kahn, president and CEO of the Federation of American Hospitals, said in a statement.

Ralph Brindis, president of the American College of Cardiology (ACC), said the changes “will make it easier for physicians to comply and encourages practices to begin implementation.”

Under the final rule, doctors will have to e-prescribe 40 percent of the time to meet the incentive requirements — down from the 75 percent pushed in the proposed rule.

Additionally, CMS’s proposed rule had required physicians to meet 25 “meaningful use” objectives, while hospitals were asked to meet 23 benchmarks.

The final rule divides those objectives into a group of core measures — 15 for doctors and 14 for hospitals — while also offering an “a la carte” menu of 10 measures from which providers can choose.

The idea is to allow providers to customize their reporting based on what they’re able to do at this early stage.

The guidelines issued Tuesday will apply to 2011 and 2012, the first phase of the transition to EHRs.

David Blumenthal, the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) national coordinator for health information technology, said Tuesday that the changes — which were made based on more than 2,000 comments on the proposed rule — will go a long way to coordinate patient care and reduce redundant treatments.

“We are only as good at treating patients as the information we have,” Blumenthal, himself a primary care physician, told an audience at HHS headquarters in Washington on Tuesday.

Medical technology firms are applauding the guidelines as well. Patti Dodgen, CEO of Hielix, a Tampa-based health IT company, said CMS took a “measured approach” that “resolved what looked to be intractable problems” with the proposed rule.

“This keeps us on an aggressive track,” Dodgen said in a telephone interview. “But it’s also a very achievable set of requirements.”

Glen Tullman, CEO of Allscripts, another health IT company, said the guidelines represent “a milestone for our industry … that sends a clear message to physicians.”

“The tipping point is here,” Tullman said in a statement, “and the time to act is now.”

{mosads}Others aren’t yet sure. The American Medical Association (AMA), the largest physician lobby, said it’s still examining the final guidelines, which run longer than 800 pages.

The AMA used Tuesday’s announcement as an opportunity to urge Congress to repeal the formula that dictates Medicare payments to doctors, which has been AMA’s top legislative priority for years.

“Physicians recognize the potential for health IT and want to adopt new technologies,” AMA board member Steven J. Stack said in a statement, “but costly EHR systems are out of reach for many physicians because of low Medicare payments and the prospect of steep cuts in December.”

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