The fiasco with the initial opening of the exchanges at healthcare.gov has become a well-known IT glitch from the Obama administration, but that might not turn out to be their biggest mistake regarding computers and health care. As it primarily involves physicians and hospitals, as opposed to the general public, far fewer people are aware with the ongoing problems regarding implementation of Meaningful Use Stage 2 requirements for electronic medical records.
The original stimulus package after Barack Obama took office included a program to provide funds to medical practices to be used for conversion to electronic medical records. In order to qualify for the incentive payments, physicians and hospitals have to follow a set of Meaningful Use requirements which have increased requirements for each stage. Initially there would be incentive payments (which turned out to be far less than the costs of conversion to electronic medical records), and subsequently there are penalties for failing to comply. The first stage was successful in terms of getting large numbers of doctors to adopt electronic medical records, but it is more questionable as to whether this is really resulting in the desired cost savings.
Stage 2 was initially required by October 2014. This would have greatly increased the use of electronic medical records, possibly resulting in more medical cost savings, but the requirements were unrealistic. The law originally required that physicians comply with the requirements of Stage 2 for a 90 day period in 2014, which essentially meant that we could wait until October 1 to implement them. When it was apparent that most physicians could not comply with this, the government postponed this until January 2015.
It was quickly apparent that this was no solution, partially as the new requirements required a full twelve months of compliance with the Stage 2 rules. By requiring compliance by this January, this only gave an additional three months. The same problems which prevented compliance with the rules by October 2014 are still present this January.
The biggest obstacle is that the rules require communication between systems which do not exist in the present software. Before making such requirements, the government should have set up a secure system for communication between computer systems rather than hoping that each individual vendor would offer a solution. Another problem is that the requirements include factors which are outside of a medical office’s control. For example, a medical office could set up a patient portal as required in order for patients to assess medical information. However, there are requirements not only to establish this, but for five percent of patients to utilize it. Many physicians, such as those with primarily elderly patients are especially concerned that not enough will even be interested in using such computerized tools. Fortunately this requirement was at least reduced from ten percent in the original regulations to five percent.
Compliance with the rules is further complicated by it being all or nothing. A medical office might follow 90 percent of the rules but will get zero incentive money and pay the full penalties for non-compliance. There are some exclusions and some flexibility in some areas, but this still creates far too great a burden on physician practices.
When the government first changed the rules last fall delaying the requirements for Stage 2 until January, some members of Congress did realize that this was not long enough to have any impact. There was a bipartisan bill introduced to reduce the requirements for a 90 day period in 2015, essentially giving physicians until October instead of January. This was not introduced until shortly before Congress went on recess prior to the election, and died before the end of the last session. Earlier this month Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) and Ron Kind (D- Wis.) introduced The Flexibility in Health IT Reporting (Flex-IT) Act of 2015 to restore the 90 day requirement. The bill also has the support of organizations including the American Academy of Family Physicians, American Hospital Association, American Medical Association, College of Healthcare Information Management Executives and Medical Group Management Association.
Even this only postpones the problem and we don’t know if the technology will be any better this fall than it is now. A recent survey of physicians found that 55 percent do not plan to attest to Stage 2, despite the financial penalties.
This failure in the implementation of computerized medical records could be a far worse fiasco than the initial roll out of the exchanges under the Affordable Care Act. The manner in which the Obama administration quickly fixed that problem turned out to be a tremendous success, and this problem is also fixable. A real fix will take more than just postponing requirements.
The government must rethink the logic behind the requirements. Most industries have computerized on their own without being forced to by the government. Some government assistance in conversion to electronic medical records would be helpful, such as establishing standards for communication between systems. Physicians must also be given flexibility to determine for ourselves which aspects of computerization are really of value for caring for our patients and which are not, rather than being forced to follow a long set of rules and only receive credit for 100 percent compliance, or being dependent on factors beyond our control.