New Federal Rules Govern Funding for Electronic Medical Records

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released final "meaningful use" rules on how health care providers can access $27 billion in federal economic stimulus money by using electronic medical records. Health care providers can begin to receive these incentives in 2011.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has released final rules on how health care providers can qualify for up to $27 billion in incentives to implement electronic medical records beginning in 2011.

The health care industry continues to mull over an 864-page document on "meaningful use" rules from the department's CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) and ONC (Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology) divisions.

Health care providers must demonstrate "meaningful use" of electronic health records to be awarded Medicare and Medicaid incentives under the Obama administration's stimulus package.

The announcement on July 13 made the requirements more flexible and divided the 25 objectives into two categories. They include 15 objectives required of physicians and hospitals, and a "menu set" of 10 procedures, of which five may be deferred to 2011-12. Objectives for after 2012 will be added later.

The government also requires that hospitals implement patient-education programs and that sharing of medical tests comply with privacy guidelines under HIPAA and the National Privacy and Security Framework.

Government incentives for implementing electronic medical records were established under the HITECH (Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health) Act.

"For years, health policy leaders on both sides of the aisle have urged adoption of electronic health records throughout our health care system to improve quality of care and ultimately lower costs," Health and Human Services Department Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement."Today, with the leadership of the president and the Congress, we are making that goal a reality."

HHS estimated that as much as $27 billion could be doled out to the health care industry over 10 years, with medical professionals receiving up to $44,000 under Medicare and $63,750 under Medicaid. Meanwhile, under Medicare and Medicaid, hospitals could receive millions for use of certified EMRs.

According to the HHS, increased use of electronic medical records could reduce health care costs, increase safety and improve Americans' health overall. The "meaningful use" requirements are the start of a five-year government campaign to increase implementation of EMRs.

The Obama administration's February 2009 stimulus bill, ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), put the "meaningful use" rules into place.

The last announcement of regulations on meaningful use came in January. At that time, doctors criticized the guidelines and noted missing physician narratives, a doctor's assessment of a patient's condition. The American Medical Association had called the rules too stringent.

Mark Segal, vice president of government and industry affairs for General Electric Healthcare IT and past vice chair of the HIMSS Electronic Health Record Association (EHRA), said the rules were helpful overall for the health care industry and show the government's commitment to health care IT.

"The overwhelming evidence is that health care IT can increase the quality and efficiency of the health care system," Segal told eWEEK.

GE offers a Centricity software platform that allows enterprises to manage the flow of patients and the revenue cycle for a practice. Segal said clarifications in the rules should allow IT departments to implement them more effectively.