For E-Prescribing, Medicare Starts with Pilot Programs

Pilot programs launched by the Department of Health and Human Services will determine the standards for electronic prescriptions.

As Medicare struggles to work out snafus behind its new drug coverage, government and business leaders are working to make sure the next big change goes smoothly.

The Medicare Modernization Act requires standards for doctors to submit prescriptions to pharmacies electronically. To make sure that goes off without a hitch, the Department of Health and Human Services has launched pilot programs across the country.

This week, it announced recipients of some $6 million in grants for programs that will run throughout the year.

Medicare is required to adopt uniform standards for e-prescribing by 2008, and the pilot programs will help determine which ones.

Implementing e-prescribing will be completely different from implementing the prescription drug benefit, said Ken Whittemore, VP of regulatory affairs at SureScripts, which allows physicians and pharmacies to exchange electronic information.

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With the drug benefit, he said, "You went from no transactions on December 31st to millions and millions of transactions on January 1st. Thats not the optimal way to roll out a new capability."

E-prescribing is different because several regions are already going ahead with initiatives and because adopters have years, not months, to move into implementation.

E-prescribing vendors involved in the CMS grants include AllScripts, Caremark iScribe, DrFirst, Gold Standard, InstantDx/OnCallData, Medplus/Quest Diagnostics and ZixCorp.

Health IT advocates consider e-prescribing an easy first step to get physicians to adopt technology. Besides eliminating the hassles of processing refill prescriptions and errors from sloppy handwriting, the new standards promise to give doctors information that they consider valuable.

The new e-prescribing standards dont just describe how to send information to a pharmacy. They also let doctors look at drugs recommended by health plans and view a patients medication history.

The pilots will measure how electronic prescribing data transmission systems affect quality of care, such as reducing adverse drug events or getting patients to take medicines appropriately.

The standards are also being tested for interoperability. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said the pilots would "help to create a new age in efficiency and safety in Americas medical care industry."

Whittemore said CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) was using the pilots to focus attention on functionalities that might otherwise be overlooked.

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Right now, he said, nearly every vendor has its own way of transmitting instructions for how a patient should take drugs, including freetext. That makes it harder to spot dosing issues. Now, he thinks, they will find a common way.

"The fact that CMS identified this as something important has really lit a fire under the industry."

That kind of push will expand the definition and utility of e-prescribing, said SureScripts CEO Kevin Hutchinson. Physicians will not only know whether a patient has been prescribed a particular medication, but also whether the dose prescribed is high or low.

Because systems at pharmacies, pharmacy benefit managers and physicians will be linked, a physician could know when and whether a patient picks up prescriptions for chronic medications.

Next Page: Helping patients take the right dosage.