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Death by a thousand clicks


 

A consultant hired by the hospital to evaluate the NextGen system, whose 60-page report was submitted to the court, identified “many functional defects” that he said rendered the software “unfit for its intended purpose.” Some patient information was not accurately recorded, which had the potential, the consultant wrote, “to create major patient care risk which could lead to, at a minimum, inconvenience, and at worst, malpractice or even death.” Glitches at Mary Rutan included incidents in which the software would apparently change a patient’s gender at random or lose a doctor’s observations after an exam, the consultant reported. The company, he found, sometimes took months to address issues: One IT ticket, which related to a physician’s notes inexplicably deleting themselves, reportedly took 10 months to resolve. (The consultant also noted that similar problems appeared to be occurring at as many as a dozen other hospitals that had installed NextGen software.)

The Ohio hospital, which paid more than $1.5 million for its EHR system, claimed breach of contract. NextGen responded that it disputed the claims made in the lawsuit and that the matter was resolved in 2015 “with no findings of fact by a court related to the allegations.” The hospital declined to comment.

At the time, as it has been since then, NextGen’s software was certified by the government as meeting the requirements of the stimulus program. By 2016, NextGen had more than 19,000 customers who had received federal subsidies.

NextGen was subpoenaed by the Department of Justice in December 2017, months after becoming the subject of a federal investigation led by the District of Vermont. Frantz tells KHN and Fortune that NextGen is cooperating with the investigation. “This company was not dishonest, but it was not effective four years ago,” he said. Frantz also emphasized that NextGen has “rapidly evolved” during his tenure, earning five industry awards since 2017, and that customers have “responded very positively.”

Glen Tullman, who until 2012 led Allscripts, another leading EHR vendor that benefited royally from the stimulus and that has been sued by numerous unhappy customers, admitted that the industry’s race to market took priority over all else.

“It was a big distraction. That was an unintended consequence of that,” Tullman said. “All the companies were saying, This is a one-time opportunity to expand our share, focus everything there, and then we’ll go back and fix it.” The Justice Department has opened a civil investigation into the company, Securities and Exchange Commission filings show. Allscripts said in an email that it cannot comment on an ongoing investigation, but that the civil investigations by the Department of Justice relate to businesses it acquired after the investigations were opened.

Much of the marketing mayhem occurred because federal officials imposed few controls over firms scrambling to cash in on the stimulus. It was a gold rush – and any system, it seemed, could be marketed as “federally approved.” Doctors could shop for bargain-price software packages at Costco and Walmart’s Sam’s Club – where eClinicalWorks sold a “turnkey” system for $11,925 – and cash in on the government’s adoption incentives.

The top-shelf vendors in 2009 crisscrossed the country on a “stimulus tour” like rock groups, gigging at some 30 cities, where they offered doctors who showed up to hear the pitch “a customized analysis” of how much money they could earn off the government incentives. Following the same playbook used by pharmaceutical companies, EHR sellers courted doctors at fancy dinners in ritzy hotels. One enterprising software firm advertised a “cash for clunkers” deal that paid $3,000 to doctors willing to trade in their current records system for a new one. Athenahealth held “invitation only” dinners at luxury hotels to advise doctors, among other things, how to use the stimulus to get paid more and capture available incentives. Allscripts offered a no-money-down purchase plan to help doctors “maximize the return on your EHR investment.” (An Athena­health spokesperson said the company’s “dinners were educational in nature and aimed at helping physicians navigate the government program.” Allscripts did not respond directly to questions about its marketing practices, but said it “is proud of the software and services [it provides] to hundreds of thousands of caregivers across the globe.”)

EHRs were supposed to reduce health care costs, at least in part by preventing duplicative tests. But as the federal government opened the stimulus tap, many raised doubts about the promised savings. Advocates bandied about a figure of $80 billion in cost savings even as congressional auditors were debunking it. While the jury’s still out, there’s growing suspicion the digital revolution may potentially raise health care costs by encouraging overbilling and new strains of fraud and abuse.

In September 2012, following press reports suggesting that some doctors and hospitals were using the new technology to improperly boost their fees, a practice known as “upcoding,” then-Health and Human Services chief Kathleen Sebelius and Attorney General Eric Holder warned the industry not to try to “game the system.”

There’s also growing evidence that some doctors and health systems may have overstated their use of the new technology to secure stimulus funds, a potentially enormous fraud against Medicare and Medicaid that likely will take many years to unravel. In June 2017, the HHS inspector general estimated that Medicare officials made more than $729 million in subsidy payments to hospitals and doctors that didn’t deserve them.

Individual states, which administer the Medicaid portion of the program, haven’t fared much better. Audits have uncovered overpayments in 14 of 17 state programs reviewed, totaling more than $66 million, according to inspector general reports.

Last month, Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, sharply criticized CMS for recovering only a tiny fraction of these bogus payments, or what he termed a “spit in the ocean.”

EHR vendors have also been accused of egregious and patient-endangering acts of fraud as they raced to cash in on the stimulus money grab. In addition to the U.S. government’s $155 million False Claims Act settlement with eClinicalWorks noted above, the federal government has reached a second settlement over similar charges against another large vendor, Tampa-based Greenway Health. In February, that company settled with the government for just over $57 million without denying or admitting wrongdoing. “These are cases of corporate greed, companies that prioritized profits over everything else,” said Christina Nolan, the U.S. attorney for the District of Vermont, whose office led the cases. (In a response, Greenway Health did not address the charges or the settlement but said it was “committing itself to being the standard-bearer for quality, compliance, and transparency.”)

Tower of Babel

In early 2017, Seema Verma, then the country’s newly appointed CMS administrator, went on a listening tour. She visited doctors around the country, at big urban practices and tiny rural clinics, and from those front-line physicians she consistently heard one thing: They hated their electronic health records. “Physician burnout is real,” she told KHN and Fortune. The doctors spoke of the difficulty in getting information from other systems and providers, and they complained about the government’s reporting requirements, which they perceived as burdensome and not meaningful.

What she heard then became suddenly personal one summer day in 2017, when her husband, himself a physician, collapsed in the airport on his way home to Indianapolis after a family vacation. For a frantic few hours, the CMS administrator fielded phone calls from first responders and physicians – Did she know his medical history? Did she have information that could save his life? – and made calls to his doctors in Indiana, scrambling to piece together his record, which should have been there in one piece. Her husband survived the episode, but it laid bare the dysfunction and danger inherent in the existing health information ecosystem.

The notion that one EHR should talk to another was a key part of the original vision for the HITECH Act, with the government calling for systems to be eventually interoperable.

What the framers of that vision didn’t count on were the business incentives working against it. A free exchange of information means that patients can be treated anywhere. And though they may not admit it, many health providers are loath to lose their patients to a competing doctor’s office or hospital. There’s a term for that lost revenue: “leakage.” And keeping a tight hold on patients’ medical records is one way to prevent it.

There’s a ton of proprietary value in that data, said Blumenthal, who now heads the Commonwealth Fund, a philanthropy that does health research. Asking hospitals to give it up is “like asking Amazon to share their data with Walmart,” he said.

Blumenthal acknowledged that he failed to grasp these perverse business dynamics and foresee what a challenge getting the systems to talk to one another would be. He added that forcing interoperability goals early on, when 90 percent of the nation’s providers still didn’t have systems or data to exchange, seemed unrealistic. “We had an expression: They had to operate before they could interoperate,” he said.

In the absence of true incentives for systems to communicate, the industry limped along; some providers wired up directly to other select providers or through regional exchanges, but the efforts were spotty. A Cerner-backed interoperability network called CommonWell formed in 2013, but some companies, including dominant Epic, didn’t join. (“Initially, Epic was neither invited nor allowed to join,” said Sumit Rana, senior vice president of R&D at Epic. Jitin Asnaani, executive director of CommonWell countered, “We made repeated invitations to every major EHR ... and numerous public and private invitations to Epic.”)

Epic then supported a separate effort to do much the same.

Last spring, Verma attempted to kick-start the sharing effort and later pledged a war on “information blocking,” threatening penalties for bad actors. She has promised to reduce the documentation burden on physicians and end the gag clauses that protect the EHR industry. Regarding the first effort at least, “there was consensus that this needed to happen and that it would take the government to push this forward,” she said. In one sign of progress last summer, the dueling sharing initiatives of Epic and Cerner, the two largest players in the industry, began to share with each other – though the effort is fledgling.

When it comes to patients, though, the real sharing too often stops. Despite federal requirements that providers give patients their medical records in a timely fashion, in their chosen format and at low cost (the government recommends a flat fee of $6.50 or less), patients struggle mightily to get them. A 2017 study by researchers at Yale found that of America’s 83 top-rated hospitals, only 53 percent offer forms that provide patients with the option to receive their entire medical record. Fewer than half would share records via email. One hospital charged more than $500 to release them.

Sometimes the mere effort to access records leads to court. Jennifer De Angelis, a Tulsa attorney, has frequently sparred with hospitals over releasing her clients’ records. She said they either attempt to charge huge sums for them or force her to obtain a court order before releasing them. De Angelis added that she sometimes suspects the records have been overwritten to cover up medical mistakes.

Consider the case of 5-year-old Uriah R. Roach, who fractured and cut his finger on Oct. 2, 2014, when it was accidentally slammed in a door at school. Five days later, an operation to repair the damage went awry, and he suffered permanent brain damage, apparently owing to an anesthesia problem. The Epic electronic medical file had been accessed more than 76,000 times during the 22 days the boy was in the hospital, and a lawsuit brought by his parents contended that numerous entries had been “corrected, altered, modified and possibly deleted after an unexpected outcome during the induction of anesthesia.” The hospital denied wrongdoing. The case settled in November 2016, and the terms are confidential.

More than a dozen other attorneys interviewed cited similar problems, especially with gaining access to computerized “audit trails.” In several cases, court records show, government lawyers resisted turning over electronic files from federally run hospitals. That happened to Russell Uselton, an Oklahoma lawyer who represented a pregnant teen admitted to the Choctaw Nation Health Care Center in Talihina, Okla. Shelby Carshall, 18, was more than 40 weeks pregnant at the time. Doctors failed to perform a cesarean section, and her baby was born brain-damaged as a result, she alleged in a lawsuit filed in 2017 against the U.S. government. The baby began having seizures at 10 hours old and will “likely never walk, talk, eat, or otherwise live normally,” according to pleadings in the suit. Though the federal government requires hospitals to produce electronic health records to patients and their families, Uselton had to obtain a court order to get the baby’s complete medical files. Government lawyers denied any negligence in the case, which is pending.

“They try to hide anything from you that they can hide from you,” said Uselton. “They make it extremely difficult to get records, so expensive and hard that most lawyers can’t take it on,” he said.

Nor, it seems, can high-ranking federal officials. When Seema Verma’s husband was discharged from the hospital after his summer health scare, he was handed a few papers and a CD-ROM containing some medical images – but missing key tests and monitoring data. Said Verma, “We left that hospital and we still don’t have his information today.” That was nearly two years ago

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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