The "EHR Improvements Act," a bill (HR 1309) recently introduced by Rep. Diane Black (R-TN), would, if passed, mean that doctors close to retirement age might not incur Medicare payment cuts as a result of failing to implement an electronic health record (EHRs) system. Additionally, the bill would make solo practitioners exempt from the penalty for three years.
The issue addressed by the bill derives from the 2009 federal economic stimulus package. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included new funding for health information technology. That funding included $17 billion to support incentives for doctors who adopt EHRs and can demonstrate they are using "certified" EHR in a "meaningful" way. The Medicare EHR incentive program was intended to incentivize health care providers to implement "meaningful use" of EHRs. The program, which began January 3, 2011, affords health care providers a way to receive up to $44,000 over five years in incentive payments. On the other hand, doctors who fail to meet meaningful use requirements will incur a penalty by way of a 1% reduction in Medicare reimbursement, per year, up to a maximum penalty of 5%. This penalty would create a substantial hardship for many physicians, particularly in small practices. The EHR Improvements act is apparently designed to mitigate that hardship.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, data shows that older and solo physicians are lagging behind in EHRs adoption. According to NCHS's research, about 50% of of physicians age 50 and older have adopted EHRs; about 64% of doctors younger than 50 have used EHRs. NCHS's research also shows that 29% of solo practitioners had adopted EHRs by 2011, whereas 60% of two-doctor practices had implemented EHRs; the EHR adoption rate climbs to 86% for practices with at least 11 doctors. One of the principal reasons for this outcome appears to be simple cost-benefit analysis: switching to EHRs is enormously expensive for most practices, so much so that the financial incentives for implementing EHRs (including the penalty for not adopting EHRs) do not offset the cost of converting to EHRs.
The Bill would, among other things, do the following: create a hardship exemption from the penalty for solo physicians in 2015-2017 (physicians could apply for the exemption based on limited capital, time or staff resources); allow doctors who will be eligible to take Social Security by 2015 to receive a retirement exemption of three years or less; physicians who have a Medicare pay cut in 2015 (and after) could recover the money if the achieve meaningful use later in that calendar year; certain specialists could qualify for a bonus by using a national registry system that collects clinical data for improving patient safety or measuring quality improvement. Such a registry must be endorsed or administered by a national specialty society and deemed qualified by the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
The bill is now pending in the House Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means committees.
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