New rules issued on electronic health records

Federal government lays out requirements that medical providers must meet and the standards that technology must adopt in the use of electronic health records.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
3 min read

Through its new and long-awaited rules on electronic health records, the government is hoping to clarify the conditions under which doctors and hospitals can collect incentive payments by investing in electronic health records, or EHR, over the new few years.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced the new rules on Tuesday in an effort to support and expand the use of electronic health records. The rules are being targeted as a specific response to the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act of 2009 (PDF), which outlined the Medicare and Medicaid incentive payments medical providers can receive by using EHR technology.

One of the rules, issued by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, defines the "meaningful use" objectives that medical professionals must meet to qualify for the payments. The goal of this rule is to provide greater flexibility by offering a menu of different objectives and procedures that providers can choose from to qualify.

The other rule, issued by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, defines the standards that must be met by EHR technology so medical providers are confident that the equipment they use will actually perform all the required functions.

"Health care is finally making the technology advances that other sectors of our economy began to undertake years ago," David Blumenthal, National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, said in a statement. "These changes will be challenging for clinicians and hospitals, but the time has come to act. Adoption and meaningful use of EHRs will help providers deliver better and more effective care, and the benefits for patients and providers alike will grow rapidly over time."

The rules for incentive payments will be set up over several years to phase in additional requirements during the later years. The government has set up a Web site with full details on the EHR incentive programs.

Washington may spend as much as $27 billion in incentive payments over 10 years, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Eligible providers can receive as much as $44,000 under Medicare and $63,750 under Medicaid over six years if they implement their EHRs in 2011, while hospitals could bring in millions of dollars by implementing EHRs under both Medicare and Medicaid.

Technology companies and other businesses also stand to generate significant sales from all the hardware and software they'll provide in the push toward EHR. Several welcomed the new rules as a positive step by Congress and the administration.

Calling the rules a "significant milestone," General Electric said they include important changes that make the objectives for incentive payments more realistic for medical providers.

NextGen Healthcare, a subsidiary of Quality Systems, also sees the new rules as good news. "We are pleased to see the final Meaningful Use criteria released to the medical provider community," Quality Systems CEO Steven Plochocki said in a statement. "Now that the requirements for Stage 1 have been completed, physicians and hospitals that have been hesitant in the past can move forward with confidence in their EHR selections."

Despite the push toward electronic health records by Washington, the transition toward EHR still has a long way to go. Last year, the American Medical Association estimated that there were over 800,000 physicians in the U.S., said Practice Fusion, which offers a free Web-based system to doctors. But only 6.3 percent of them said they had a fully functional electronic medical records system in place, according to the Centers for Disease Control.