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ONC stresses flexible EHR strategy

Brian Eastwood | March 11, 2014
The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT is taking incremental steps to make life easier for healthcare providers struggling to meet the criteria for the meaningful use of electronic health record technology. It's welcome relief for overburdened organizations -- but is it enough to meet their demands for improved interoperability?

The more that healthcare providers use electronic health record (EHR) systems, the more questions they have about interoperability, optimization, patient portals and the future of the meaningful use incentive program.

The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) has, for that reason, spent recent weeks outlining its vision for the EHR market and, accordingly, alleviating the fears of providers wrestling the pressures of EHR implementation, the ICD-10 conversion, clinical quality measures and evolving care models.

The ONC's statements at the recent Health Information and Management Systems Society's HIMSS 2014 conference suggest both progress and pitfalls in an effort to meet what's increasingly becoming a moving target.

Government Granting Meaningful Use Amnesty to Stressed Providers
The action, as it were, began in December, when the ONC and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced a one-year delay in the meaningful use timeline. Stage 2, which emphasizes more advanced clinical processes, now ends one year later, in 2016, with stage 3 and its emphasis on improved outcomes beginning in 2017.

With the delay, ONC and CMS essentially admit that they understand how hard healthcare has it. After all, meaningful use represents but one of many deadlines looming over healthcare the industry:

Amid such tumult, the ONC told HIMSS attendees to expect flexibility with meaningful use stage 2 hardship exemptions. Since meaningful use and the ICD-10 conversion have already been delayed once, their deadlines won't be moved again, but CMS says it will extend an olive branch to providers who can't meet stage 2 criteria - they won't receive incentives money, but they won't be penalized, either.

'Pockets of Progress' For Healthcare IT Interoperability Rare
On the sole basis of stimulating EHR adoption, meaningful use has succeeded. The incentive program has awarded more than $20 billion to hospitals and eligible providers, or roughly all of what was allocated in the HITECH Act of 2009. According to CMS, 80 percent of eligible hospitals and 50 percent of eligible providers are participating in meaningful use. (There is no payment cap, so participants will receive what they are due.)


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