Registration for EHR Bonuses Begins January 3

December 29, 2010

December 29, 2010 — After almost 2 years of hope, hype, and tedious regulatory groundwork, physicians on Monday, January 3, 2011, can begin to register online in a federal incentive program for electronic health records (EHRs) that will start cutting checks within the next 30 days.

The jackpot is high — up to $44,000 for physicians over 5 years under Medicare, and as much as $63,750 over 6 years under Medicaid. To qualify for the money, physicians must not only adopt EHR technology but also demonstrate that they use it in a meaningful way; that is, in ways that improve the quality of care.

Transmitting prescriptions electronically to a pharmacy is one official measure of meaningful use. Another is purchasing a system that has been certified as capable of performing digital-medicine functions.

Registration for EHR incentives begins January 3.

The EHR incentive program originated with the economic stimulus legislation called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that Congress passed in February 2009. It is administered by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), along with the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), both parts of the US Department of Health and Human Services. The agencies have labored since early 2009 to develop meaningful-use standards and select organizations that would certify worthy EHR systems.

Incentive Checks Under Medicare Will Start to Go Out in May

Physicians can sign up for EHR bonuses under Medicaid or Medicare, but not both. They can register for either incentive program at the CMS registration site. Physicians in the Medicaid incentive program will also need to complete the registration process online with their state Medicaid agency.

However, not every state Medicaid agency will have its version of the incentive program up and running on January 3 and ready to accept registrations. Those that will are in Alaska, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas, according to CMS. Some of those states will begin issuing EHR incentive payments later in January.

In February, physicians will be able to sign up for EHR bonuses with Medicaid agencies in California, Missouri, and North Dakota. Other states are expected to debut their Medicaid incentive programs through the spring and summer of 2011.

Incentive payments under Medicare will be slower in coming. Physicians who have registered in that program must then report to CMS that they have met meaningful-use requirements over a 90-day period. Because registration begins January 3, the earliest they can attest to this is in April. The first EHR incentive checks under Medicare are expected to go out in May. The last day for physicians to begin a 90-day reporting period in 2011 is October 3.

CMS has posted voluminous amounts of information online to help physicians qualify for the incentive payments, as has ONC. In addition, physicians who want personal help in selecting and implementing an EHR system can turn to 62 "Regional Extension Centers" nationwide that are funded by ONC.

State and national medical societies also offer their members guidance on switching to electronic charts and qualifying for the bonuses.

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