HHS offers incentives for e-health data exchange

Monday - 1/31/2011, 10:08am EST

Dr. David Blumenthal, National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, HHS

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By Olivia Branco
Federal News Radio

Health and Human Services has just started accepting applications for electronic health records incentive payments. The payments were authorized under the 2009 economic stimulus bill.

That money is available to hospitals and doctors who both install electronic records systems and then demonstrate they're using them to help cut costs.

Dr. David Blumenthal is the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. He joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Amy Morris to discuss how the applications process is going.

"So far it's going very well, as of last week we've had over 13,000 provider registrants so that's a great start," Blumenthal said. "We know that the great majority of hospitals plan to apply for meaningful use payments in stage one in 2011 and 2012 and about 30-35% of physicians in surveys done last summer said the same thing.

"We are off to a good start, though we will have to continue to have to work to educate providers about this opportunity and tell them what they need to do to take advantage of it."

According to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, there are between 400,000 and 500,000 clinicians and over 4,000 hospitals that are ultimately eligible for these payments.

All clinicians, including doctors, nurse practitioners, midwives and dentists among other professions, that get paid under medicare or medicaid are eligible for the program.

The general idea behind the program is that when a medicare or medicaid provider bills a certain amount under either Medicare or Medicaid, then they are eligible for certain bonus payment.

"In medicare, once a provider has billed $24,000 worth of services, which is pretty common among physicians, and they are certified as being a meaningful user, then they are eligible for a payment of $18,500 in the first stage of meaningful use."

One of the difficulties with the program is ensuring interoperability between private practices and large hospitals for when a patient is seen in both locations.

"Eventually [hospitals and private physicians] absolutely do have to be interoperable and we are working very hard to that," Blumenthal said. "In the first stage of this process we are requiring only a minimal level of interoperability. We are requiring that they adopt standards and records that are capable of interoperability and requiring that they test the ability to exchange information.

"Later on we will require more vigorous and robust interoperability. When you are asking people who mostly have never used an electronic health record to get up and running, we figured it's enough for them to just meet the basic requirements in the first stage. In later stages, we will increase out demands on providers to be able to do more complicated things like exchange information."

The group most interested and supportive of the meaningful use program according to Blumenthal is the industry that creates and supports the electronic health record programs.

"This is their business, they want it to work, they are invested in it's future," Blumenthal said. "They are rushing and running right now to keep up with the demand that has been generated as a result of this federal program. That, to us, is a huge positive. We like to think we've really given a jump start to an industry that has an enormous future.

"As you think about the President's economic program, his talk about competitiveness, his talk about planning an economy that has a future, this is right in the bulls-eye of that plan because we're building with these private partners, an industry that's going to get it's own wind as a result of the innovation that is getting started."

Blumenthal says the wide usage of electronic health systems will help improve healthcare on the whole.

"[Health providers] are going to innovate every day at the bedside, they're going to make requests of vendors to upgrade their products and the competition among vendors to meet that demand will create a virtuous cycle. The federal government at that point will just be a bystander that gave a jump start to an industry that was on the verge of exploding and we just tipped it over the edge."