It’s that time of year again when Meaningful Use conversations heat up because all sorts of deadlines are approaching, and as expected, nobody is ready. Meaningful Use was originally intended to have 3 stages, each lasting two years. At the end of 2011, Meaningful Use Stage 2, which should have started in 2013, was postponed by one year and reduced to 90 days to allow vendors and providers enough time to build, deploy and implement new functionality required for Stage 2. As 2013 is drawing to a close and Stage 2 is practically upon us, a flurry of organizations is petitioning the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to delay Stage 2 just a little bit longer.
The College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) fired the first shot back in May, asking for one more 12 months extension. Later in July, theAmerican Medical Association (AMA) and the American Hospital Association (AHA), combined forces and jointly requested additional flexibility to be built into Stage 2 and that providers that are still at Stage 1 should not be forced to upgrade their software in 2014 (more on that below). The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) followed with its own sophisticated proposal on how to better stagger the transition to Stage 2. Next, the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) petitioned the Secretary to place a moratorium on all penalties for providers that achieved Stage 1, and to allow Stage 1 meaningful users to continue attesting for Stage 1 if they cannot obtain a Stage 2 certified product. HIMSS, the EHR vendors association, sent their letter in support of maintaining the current Stage 2 Meaningful Use launch schedule, but extend its first year to be 18 months long. Confused yet? Let’s detangle the mystery.
First and foremost, whether you began your Meaningful Use journey in 2011 or are about to jump in next year, this conundrum affects you directly, because beginning January 1st 2014 all meaningful users must implement and utilize 2014 certified EHR technology (CEHRT). Even if you plan on just attesting to Stage 1 next year, you cannot use just any old 2011 certified EHR. So all 300,000 or so eligible professionals who have previously attested to Meaningful Use Stage 1, plus all late adopters planning to enter the fray in 2014, will be out there trying to wrestle a good place in line for upgrades, training and installations. Most will do so only after January 1st, and all will have to be ready to start clicking the boxes no later than October 1st. That’s over 1,000 clinicians per day, not counting new entrants. Any way you want to look at it, it’s not a very likely scenario.
Much has been said in the various letters to HHS regarding the small number of EHRs that managed to get certified for 2014, compared to the seventeen hundred complete EHRs certified for Stage 1. This is true, and this may pose a completely different type of problem down the road when doctors realize that most of these fly by night products will soon disappear. However, as late as October 2010, we had less than three dozen certified complete EHRs for Stage 1, a number that grew exponentially in the following couple of years. My guess would be that by the end of the year all major, midsize and viable minor players will be 2014 certified. The problem this time around is that Meaningful Use Stage 1 has been rather successful and there are now about 6 times as many providers needing a new EHR as there were in 2011, and unlike 2011, those who fail to get their upgrades in time will not only lose an incentive, but will be financially penalized by CMS. It just doesn’t seem fair.
Delaying Meaningful Use Stage 2 by yet another year will obviously address the time crunch problem, but if we really want to be fair, we have to admit that another delay will look really bad for the program. Putting in place a complicated scheme of who should buy what and when, and who should attest to which Stage at which time, in an attempt to control the flow of upgrades, is bound to create much confusion in an already over specified and (needlessly) complex EHR certification scheme. So what should HHS do? Take another hit to its credibility and further delay Stage 2? Push forward full steam and deal with the consequences at a later date? Perhaps Meaningful Use is more like a Chinese finger trap at this point, and the best strategy would be to relax a little bit, and understand that 5 year plans rarely go as planned and that’s OK. Below is a humble suggestion to that effect.(Note: Here we are discussing the Eligible Professional measures. The Hospital equivalent should be straightforward.)
Meaningful Use Stage 2 Beta
There are three factors affecting the Meaningful Use program trajectory: time frame, requirements definition, software readiness. Unfortunately, we started by defining the time frame and then discovered that requirements definition and software certification did not fit in our predefined schedule and not even in our expanded schedule. Also unfortunately, we cannot control software readiness, since it depends on thousands of independent players that we can motivate, cajole or threaten, but that’s about it. What is left then? The requirements. The definition of Stage 2, or any other Stage, is not immutable even at this late junction. Those who made the rules can change them ever so slightly to allow a hybrid Stage 2 Beta (see figure below) to be inserted between good enough and perfection.
When compared to Stage 1, Meaningful Use Stage 2 introduced 4 types of changes:
- Higher thresholds for existing measures
- Transition of optional (Menu) measures to required (Core)
- New measures (Menu and Core) for existing EHR functionality
- New measures that require new software to be built (Menu and Core)
The changes in #1 and #2 can be all satisfied with 2011 CEHRT. #3 can be satisfied by most 2011 CEHRT, and even some of the #4 measures are already deployed in the better 2011 CEHRT. Splitting and transitioning portions of a handful of #3 and #4 measures from Core to Menu, will allow the 300,000 providers that already attested to Stage 1, to seamlessly move on to Stage 2 Beta without much turmoil. All in all we are talking about 5 such changes from Core to Menu, plus allowing for the increased number of clinical quality measures to continue to be submitted through attestation if necessary.
- CPOE for labs and radiology capabilities were present in all good EHRs long before ONC certification came into play.
- Patients access to health information is, by definition, what patient portals are for, and many 2011 CEHRT used portals to become certified. True, ability to download and transmit information is rarely there if at all, but although this is a 2014 certification requirement, it is not a Meaningful Use actual requirement.
- Having the EHR suggest education materials based on patient health status has been around for a decade, and the better 2011 CEHRT already have that built in.
- Secure messaging through a patient portal is part and parcel of any patient portal. More exotic forms of messaging which are required for 2014 certification are optional for users (same as #2).
- Electronic health information exchange is only available for a minority of users, for reasons other than EHR capabilities, which should have been present in all 2011 CEHRT.
- Electronic submission of clinical quality measures is possible from 2011 CEHRT that have a CMS approved registry. There aren’t that many and insisting on the methodology here seems a bit petty.
The proposed Meaningful Use Stage 2 Beta is achievable with 2011 CEHRT, and allowing it to be used along with the 2014 CEHRT for an interim Stage 2 Beta, should provide immediate resolution to the problem at hand. Since most 2011 CEHRT contain functionality to meet the problematic measures anyway, my guess would be that these newly designated Menu measures will be very popular with Stage 2 Beta attestations, particularly because many of the current Stage 2 Menu measures are heavily dependent on non-existing third party infrastructure. And just so CMS doesn’t feel that it is giving away too much by allowing 2011 CEHRT to be used for a slightly less stringent Core set, let’s up the ante on the Menu measures and require that 5 are satisfied instead of the current three. If I was working on Meaningful Use 2 Beta, I would pick the first 4 items above, plus visit notes or family history from the current Menu items (no decent EHR comes without notes and histories).
The difficulty with this Meaningful Use Stage 2 Beta proposal is that all downgraded measures have something to do with the much debated subject of interoperability, thus Stage 2 Beta could be erroneously construed as a retreat from interoperability in general, and so called patient engagement in particular. It may be so, but to a very small degree, since there is no way to pick 5 Menu items without having at least 3 of them relate to interoperability/engagement. Besides, it is usually better to continue moving ahead at a slightly slower pace than it is to come to a dead stop, or alternatively keep going fast and furious over the impeding cliff. Personally, I would use the Beta period to evaluate the program to a greater degree than just how much money was paid out in incentives, and I would take a hard look at the incredible complexity introduced in the EHR certification program, because this too frequent and too invasive granularity is not sustainable, and is the root cause for the difficulties we are experiencing right now.
Margalit writes regularly about intersection of healthcare & technology on her site: On Health Care Technology