Feature

Death by a thousand clicks


 

$36 billion and change

The effort to digitize America’s health records got its biggest push in a very low moment: the financial crisis of 2008. In early December of that year, Obama, barely four weeks after his election, pitched an ambitious economic recovery plan. “We will make sure that every doctor’s office and hospital in this country is using cutting-edge technology and electronic medical records so that we can cut red tape, prevent medical mistakes and help save billions of dollars each year,” he said in a radio address.

The idea had already been a fashionable one in Washington. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was fond of saying it was easier to track a FedEx package than one’s medical records. Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, had also pursued the idea of wiring up the country’s health system. He didn’t commit much money, but Bush did create an agency to do the job: the Office of the National Coordinator (ONC).

In the depths of recession, the EHR conceit looked like a shovel-ready project that only the paper lobby could hate. In February 2009, legislators passed the HITECH Act, which carved out a hefty chunk of the massive stimulus package for health information technology. The goal was not just to get hospitals and doctors to buy EHRs, but rather to get them using them in a way that would drive better care. So lawmakers devised a carrot-and-stick approach: Physicians would qualify for federal subsidies (a sum of up to nearly $64,000 over a period of years) only if they were “meaningful users” of a government-certified system. Vendors, for their part, had to develop systems that met the government’s requirements.

They didn’t have much time, though. The need to stimulate the economy, which meant getting providers to adopt EHRs quickly, “presented a tremendous conundrum,” said Farzad Mostashari, who joined the ONC as deputy director in 2009 and became its leader in 2011: The ideal – creating a useful, interoperable, nationwide records system – was “utterly infeasible to get to in a short time frame.”

That didn’t stop the federal planners from pursuing their grand ambitions. Everyone had big ideas for the EHRs. The FDA wanted the systems to track unique device identifiers for medical implants, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wanted them to support disease surveillance, CMS wanted them to include quality metrics and so on. “We had all the right ideas that were discussed and hashed out by the committee,” said Mostashari, “but they were all of the right ideas.”

Not everyone agreed, though, that they were the right ideas. Before long, “meaningful use” became pejorative shorthand to many for a burdensome government program – making doctors do things like check a box indicating a patient’s smoking status each and every visit.

The EHR vendor community, then a scrappy $2 billion industry, griped at the litany of requirements but stood to gain so much from the government’s $36 billion injection that it jumped in line. As Rusty Frantz, CEO of EHR vendor NextGen Healthcare, put it: “The industry was like, ‘I’ve got this check dangling in front of me, and I have to check these boxes to get there, and so I’m going to do that.’”

Halamka, who was an enthusiastic backer of the initiative in both the Bush and Obama administrations, blames the pressure for a speedy launch as much as the excessive wish list. “To go from a regulation to a highly usable product that is in the hands of doctors in 18 months, that’s too fast,” he said. “It’s like asking nine women to have a baby in a month.”

Several of those who worked on the project admit the rollout was not as easy or seamless as they’d anticipated, but they contend that was never the point. Aneesh Chopra, appointed by Obama in 2009 as the nation’s first chief technology officer, called the spending a “down payment” on a vision to fundamentally change American medicine – creating a digital infrastructure to support new ways to pay for health services based on their quality and outcomes.

Dr. Bob Kocher, a physician and star investor with venture capital firm Venrock, who served in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2011 as a health and economic policy adviser, not only defends the rollout then but also disputes the notion that the government initiative has been a failure at all. “EHRs have totally lived up to the hype and expectations,” he said, emphasizing that they also serve as a technology foundation to support innovation on everything from patients accessing their medical records on a smartphone to AI-driven medical sleuthing. Others note the systems’ value in aggregating medical data in ways that were never possible with paper – helping, for example, to figure out that contaminated water was poisoning children in Flint, Mich.

But Rusty Frantz heard a far different message about EHRs – and, more important, it was coming from his own customers.

The Stanford-trained engineer, who in 2015 became CEO of NextGen, a $500-million-a-year EHR heavyweight in the physician-office market, learned the hard way about how his product was being viewed. As he stood at the podium at his first meeting with thousands of NextGen customers at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Resort, just four months after getting the job, he told KHN and Fortune, “People were lining up at the microphones to yell at us: ‘We weren’t delivering stable software! The executive team was inaccessible! The service experience was terrible!’ ” (He now refers to the event as “Festivus: the airing of the grievances.”)

Frantz had bounced around the health care industry for much of his career, and from the nearby perch of a medical device company, he watched the EHR incentive bonanza with a mix of envy and slack-jawed awe. “The industry was moving along in a natural Darwinist way, and then along came the stimulus,” said Frantz, who blames the government’s ham-handed approach to regulation. “The software got slammed in, and the software wasn’t implemented in a way that supported care,” he said. “It was installed in a way that supported stimulus. This company, we were complicit in it, too.”

Even that may be a generous description. KHN and Fortune found a trail of lawsuits against the company, stretching from White Sulphur Springs, Mont., to Neillsville, Wis. Mary Rutan Hospital in Bellefontaine, Ohio, sued NextGen (formerly called Quality Systems) in federal court in 2013, arguing that it experienced hundreds of problems with the “materially defective” software the company had installed in 2011.

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