18,000 Providers Registered for 'Meaningful Use' Incentive Programs, Blumenthal Says

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As of Feb. 8, nearly 18,000 providers have registered for the Medicare and Medicaid “meaningful use” incentive programs, National Coordinator for Health Information Technology David Blumenthal told attendees of the National Health Policy Conference in Washington.

“We have entered a new era in the health care system … the era of meaningful use,” Blumenthal said.

Medicare incentive payments for providers and hospitals that achieve meaningful use will be paid as early as May 1, Blumenthal said, while Medicaid payments for meaningful use have already begun.

Speaking on a panel on health information technology post-health care reform, Blumenthal described the meaningful use programs as not only incentive programs, but also initiatives that will build infrastructure and facilitate health information exchange among providers.

For the first time ever, Blumenthal said, meaningful use describes what a health care record should contain for the average patient.

Furthermore, Blumenthal said, meaningful use and the widespread adoption of HIT systems are “vital” to many other health care reforms, such as accountable care organizations and health insurance exchanges.

Incentive payments for adoption of certified electronic health record technology are federally funded under the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

While Programs Continue, Challenges Remain.

Despite Blumenthal's report of successes in the meaningful use incentive programs, other panelists reported that physicians have yet to realize the benefits of improved quality of care, increased efficiency, and cost savings that HIT adoption is meant to achieve.

Currently, only 10 percent of physicians have “fully functional” electronic medical record systems implemented, and those still lack some of the capabilities required to achieve meaningful use, Donald Wilson, medical director of the Quality Insights of Pennsylvania, a Medicare quality improvement organization, said.

According to Kevin Lanphear, a primary care physician from a family practice in Newburyport, Mass., small-town providers continue to face major challenges trying to adopt EHR systems due to the cost of the systems, changes in workflow after implementation, and decreased productivity during implementation.

Small-practice providers support the technology, but not the HIT meaningful use mandates, Lanphear said.

Physicians need more education on how to use the EHR systems meaningfully, or they will never realize the potential of the technology, Wilson said.

Funds Should Remain, Blumenthal Says.

ONC is not worried about losing its HITECH funding in the wake of the introduction of federal legislation aimed at recovering unspent stimulus funds, Blumenthal said.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) introduced the Spending Reduction Act of 2011 (H.R. 408) on Jan. 24, which calls for eliminating any unobligated discretionary funds for several federal programs, including those established under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Almost all ONC HITECH funds have been awarded or committed to various grant programs and initiatives, Blumenthal said.

In regard to the meaningful use incentive programs, Blumenthal was skeptical that the legislation will be passed by the Senate or signed by President Obama.

By Genevieve Douglas