HHS Delays Tougher EHR 'Meaningful Use' Rules

December 01, 2011

December 1, 2011 — Physicians trying to earn 6-figure federal incentives for using electronic health records (EHRs) will find it easier to collect the cash, thanks to the government's decision to delay the implementation of tougher "meaningful-use" standards by 1 year.

The move, announced yesterday by Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, is aimed at speeding up EHR adoption. The conversion to digital charts already is proceeding at a rapid clip, Sebelius said, pointing to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showing that the percentage of physicians with basic EHRs doubled from 17% to 34% between 2008 and 2011.

Kathleen Sebelius

Spurring on this EHR revolution is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which promises up to $44,000 under Medicare or almost $64,000 under Medicaid to physicians who use the technology in a meaningful way — that is, to improve the quality of care while lowering costs. As of October 31, HHS had paid out more than $1.2 billion in incentive payments to physicians, hospitals, and other providers. The CDC reports that 52% of office-based physicians intend to take advantage of the program.

HHS is very particular in how it defines meaningful use of EHRs, and this fine-print is what Sebelius's announcement is all about. The standards for meaningful use are supposed to become more stringent over time. Providers participating in the program in 2011 and 2012 are subject to stage 1 standards. For physicians, that means satisfying 20 of 25 individual standards — 15 mandatory and 5 elective — such as transmitting at least 40% of their prescriptions to the pharmacy electronically. Stage 2 standards, which raise the bar for exchanging data with other healthcare organizations, had been scheduled to take effect in 2013, followed by stage 3 standards in 2015.

Yesterday, Sebelius announced a new timetable. Physicians and other providers who enter the incentive program in 2011 will not have to meet stage 2 standards — still in the making — until 2014.

This 1-year delay was already on the books for providers who enter the program next year. HHS has reiterated that such providers will not be subject to stage 2 meaningful-use standards until 2014, according the publication Health Data Management.

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