Digital health records incentive challenged

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Four Republican House leaders sent a letter Friday to U.S. Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, asking the department to suspend payments to hospitals and physicians practices that switch from paper to electronic health records.

The foursome -- Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Lancaster; Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich.; Rep. Fred Upton, D-Mich.; and Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif. -- say they have serious concerns about an incentive system that "squanders taxpayer dollars and does little, if anything, to improve outcomes for Medicare."

Much of the letter focused on the alleged ambiguity of recently published "meaningful use" criteria -- the standards by which the federal government will judge whether hospitals and doctors have upgraded their electronic medical records systems in meaningful ways.

The congressmen also said that, despite the $10 billion disbursed thus far in incentives, there is little proof that the IT system upgrades are helping the health care system move toward an interoperable digital system that can trade patients' medical information.

The letter cites recent media reports, including a September report in The New York Times, which suggest that computerized billing code technology actually makes it easier for clinics and hospitals to bill for more, or more expensive, procedures.

Digitization of health records, and the ability for different health institutions to share and access those records, has been championed by health reformers and politicians for decades on the grounds that it will eventually save money and lives.

Lately there has been some push-back from foes who say the government is moving too fast, forcing clinics and hospitals to adopt untested health IT systems that do nothing to improve quality of care.

The 2009 stimulus act, also known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, authorized spending $27 billion on helping providers install and improve electronic health records, in order to earn bonus payments from Medicare.

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Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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