After months of anticipation, the federal government finally released the new rules for doctors and hospitals looking to cash in on stimulus funding incentives for the adoption of electronic health records (EHRs).

Announced Tuesday, July 13, by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the final rules give health-care providers greater flexibility to meet "meaningful use" standards. That's good news for the health-care industry, officials say, because the less stringent standards will make the EHR transition more realistic.

"This is a turning point for electronic health records in America, and for improved quality and effectiveness in health care," said David Blumenthal, national coordinator for Health Information Technology. "In delivering on the goals that Congress called for, we have sought to provide the leadership and coordination that are essential for a large, technology-based enterprise. At the same time, we have sought and received extensive input from the health-care community, and we have drawn on their experience and wisdom to produce objectives that are both ambitious and achievable."

The adoption of EHR technology is a key goal for the Barack Obama administration. But today, only 20 percent of doctors and 10 percent of hospitals use even basic EHRs, according to Sebelius. The meaningful use criteria are being implemented in three stages. By 2015, hospitals and doctors who don't adopt the new technology can face penalties.

As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH) established programs under Medicare and Medicaid to provide incentive payments for health-care providers that demonstrate the "meaningful use" of EHR technology. The act makes $44,000 to $63,750 available to eligible health professionals from Medicare and Medicaid, respectively; eligible hospitals can qualify for millions of dollars, depending on their size.

But before the government could start shelling out money, the "meaningful use" standards needed to be defined. Proposed standards were released at the end of last year for public comment. More than 2,000 recommendations came in to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which Blumenthal noted were taken into account for the final rules. The final document is 800-plus pages long.

The preliminary standards were criticized for being too tough; the new rules give health-care professionals more flexibility for implementing the meaningful use criteria. For instance, the new rules reduce the number of objectives that hospitals and practitioners must implement immediately. They also give health providers more latitude on deciding which measures to implement first.

Also, the percentage of electronic prescriptions that doctors have to transmit has been pared down from 75 percent in the original proposal to 40 percent. Find a fact sheet on the final standards at the website.

 

Russell Nichols  |  Staff Writer