Starting April 18, physicians can begin sending data to the federal government to qualify for thousands of dollars in bonus payments under the new Medicare electronic health record incentive program.
The program officially began on Jan. 3, but this is the first day that physicians and other eligible providers can submit data on their "meaningful use" of electronic health records (EHRs). In order to qualify for Medicare incentive payments for 2011, physicians must report on at least 90 days of meaningful use occurring during this calendar year. Oct. 1, 2011, is the last day that physician can begin their 90-day reporting period to receive a 2011 incentive payment. The first checks for the Medicare incentive program are expected to go out in May, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The incentive program, which was authorized under the 2009 Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, offers payments to physicians who use health information technology to improve patient care. Federal regulations governing the program spell out how physicians and hospitals can meet standards for the meaningful use of certified EHR technology. Physicians that meet the criteria are eligible to receive up to $44,000 over five years under the Medicare program. Physicians can still receive bonuses if they begin their meaningful use of the technology later, but they must qualify for the program before the end of 2012 to get all the available incentives.
A similar program is in place under the Medicaid program, with physicians eligible to receive up to $64,000 over 6 years for the adoption and use of certified EHR technology.
As part of the attestation process, physicians and other eligible providers must go online to report data on a number of meaningful use and quality measures established by CMS. Through the online portal, physicians can report the numerator, denominator, and any potential exclusions for the objectives.
They can also attest that they have successfully met the program requirements. For example, the meaningful use regulations require that providers maintain an up-to-date accounting of current and active diagnoses. To be eligible for incentives, providers must report that more than 80% of all unique patients seen by the provider have at least one entry, or an indicator that no problems are known for the patients. The data must be recorded in a structured format.
"There is a great deal of interest in the meaningful use program," said William Underwood, a senior associate in the division of medical practice, professionalism, and quality at the American College of Physicians.
But while interest is high, that doesn’t mean physicians will be clamoring to report on meaningful use immediately. Right now, physicians in both small and large practices are struggling with logistical hurdles, Mr. Underwood said. For example, there is currently not a process in place to allow practice administrators to submit meaningful use data to CMS on behalf of large physician practices. The current set-up requires a physician to report the information. While CMS officials plan to address this, it hasn’t happened yet, Mr. Underwood said. Some small practices are having difficulty meeting meaningful use thresholds because other entities aren’t exchanging information with them regarding labs and referrals. And practices of all sizes are waiting for vendors to finish rolling out updates that show they’re in compliance with meaningful use certification, he said.
Dr. Steven Waldren, director of the Center for Health IT at the American Academy of Family Physicians, agreed that while some physicians will submit data immediately, a large portion are still trying to figure out what they need to do to meet meaningful use requirements and ensure that their EHR system is certified. It may take until at least October to get a real sense of how many physicians plan to participate, he said.