October 28, 2009
Much of the conversation and debate about physician EHR adoption has centered on the single issue of the (high) cost of purchase. However, we'd like to suggest that the situation is much more complex and involves several more subtle variables.
Consider, for example, uncertainty about the future. In a recent speech, Lawrence Summers, Director of the White House's National Economic Council for President Barack Obama, related the following analysis about decision-making under conditions of uncertainty in the marketplace, which he had first heard from Ben Bernanke, current Chairman of the Federal Reserve, in a speech Mr. Bernanke gave over 30 years ago: "If you as a business were considering buying a new boiler, and if you knew the price of energy was going to be high, you would buy one kind of boiler. If you knew the price of energy was going to be low, you'd buy another kind of boiler. If you didn't know what the price of energy was going to be, but you thought you would know a year from now, you wouldn't buy any boiler at all. And in exactly that way, it is illustrated that the reduction of uncertainty, through the resolution of disputes, is, I would suggest, all important, if we are to maintain confidence."
Let us paraphrase both of these eminent economists, while applying the same set of ideas to the purchase of electronic health records: If you as a physician were considering buying a new EHR technology, and if you knew the reimbursement rates for your practice were going to be high, you would buy one kind of EHR. If you knew the rates of reimbursement were going to be low, you'd buy another kind of EHR. If you didn't know what the reimbursement rates were going to be, but you thought you would know a year from now, you wouldn't buy any EHR at all.
We've substituted "reimbursement rates" for the "cost of energy" here because, especially for physicians in small practices with under ten clinicians, the amounts they are paid per encounter by health plans, Medicare, and Medicaid are what determines how much money net of expenses will be available for significant investments such as EHRs at any given period of time.
And there is enormous economic uncertainty for physicians now. A 21 per cent cut in fees from Medicare is looming overhead, set to go into effect January 1, 2010. An arcane system known as the SGR determines annual Medicare payment rates by using a formula that aligns actual spending rates with specified targets. Medicare rates are crucial as they are the benchmark rates by which private sector health plans set their payment schedules. In the past several years, spending has exceeded targeted rates, triggering steep reductions in physician payment rates, which have been averted only by last minute Congressional intervention. What's worse is that recently the so-called "Medicare-fix" of the SGR has become a political football, with a Democrat-led effort to revamp the system as part of the health reform legislative package failing to reach the Senate floor for a vote on October 14, 2009. This only adds to the uncertainty regarding what physicians will earn in 2010 and beyond. No cut? A 5 per cent cut? A 21 per cent cut? The prudent physician or practice administrator, like the prudent business, would be wise to delay major purchases like an EHR until knowing if there will be capital available to pay for them.
Enter the ARRA/HITECH incentive payments of as much as $44,000 for "meaningful use of certified EHR technology" over a 5 year period starting in 2011, intended to stimulate physician and hospital adoption of EHR technology, uptake of which has been anemic at best. Currently, only somewhere between 15-20 per cent of physicians are using EHRs, and the number among small and medium size practices is even lower. Clearly, Congress and HHS believe that a stimulus of approximately $10,000 per doctor per year should be enough to induce a significant number of America's doctors to change their minds and acquire and use EHR technologies in their practices by 2015.
But only if the doctors can make a reasonable calculation as to the net costs of such a purchase, and right now there is too much uncertainty to make such a calculation. Not only do they not know the federal government's definition of a "certified EHR technology" -- which will determine which products currently on the market, or on the market sometime during 2010-2011, will qualify their practices for incentives, if purchased. They do not know yet which particular "meaningful uses" of such technology will be rewarded, if such a "certified" technology is purchased. They also don't know how to apply for the incentive payments, when to make such application, or in what time period to expect a reply. (To be fair to ONC and HHS, the regulations sorting all this out are expected to be released in December, 2009. However, as we understand the process, final versions are unlikely to be read into the Federal Register until mid-2010 or beyond.)
Furthermore, many physicians with whom we've spoken believe that the $44,000 being offered by the ARRA/HITECH incentives would cover only a quarter to a third of the actual total costs of ownership during those five years, leaving them with expenses of roughly an additional $100,000 per physician that must come out-of-pocket in order to implement one of these software programs. This may be why one hospital recently offered to add an additional $40,000 per physician, over and above the ARRA/HITECH payments, as incentive to get their system's doctors to utilize one of the more popular EHR products. ("Popular" may be a stretch. When only 15 per cent of doctors have chosen to acquire an EHR from any vendor, none of them can really be considered the people's choice.)
Thus, there exists a significant "uncertainty gap" between what Medicare or Medicaid is willing to pay a physician to adopt an EHR technology, and what the actual costs to each physician will be. Physicians buying now must either a) accept the possibility of a significant out-of-pocket expense, or b) have confidence that health care payment reform will provide significant additional payments beyond those of ARRA/HITECH to doctors will make up the difference. However, confidence among physicians in incentive payment programs from HHS and CMS is probably at an all time low. Many thousands of physicians who complied with the Physician Quality Reporting Initiative, or PQRI, by sending CMS quality and performance data from 2007 to 2009, have yet to receive a penny for their efforts. Some report they haven't even gotten responses from CMS as to the nature of the problems! The bonus payments are just 1.5-2.0 per cent of Medicare billings, or between $1,000 and $2,000 for the average family physician or general internist. But according to many physicians, the work that has to be done in order to qualify for these payments routinely uses nearly as much office staff and IT consulting work as the bonus is worth. The many snags encountered by physicians who have tried to participate in PQRI have added insult to injury, significantly tarnishing the reputation of CMS and putting into question, in the minds of many physicians at least, the government's ability to operate the ARRA/HITECH incentives, without question a much more complex endeavor than has been PQRI.
Finally, physicians lack confidence in broad payment reform of the kind that would actually create a return on investment for health IT used to improve quality and monitor costs of care. Beyond the issue of Medicare incentive payments for EHR technology not yet specified, to be used in ways that haven't yet been defined, doctors are manifestly not confident about the longer term issue of whether short-term incentive payments will be converted to sustainable economic returns, as through pay-for-performance, after 2015. This concern is perhaps more relevant to the reduction of uncertainty and the build-up of confidence than the narrow issue of ARRA/HITECH incentive payments, which are, after all is said and done, a faux business model for investments in EHR technology that comes to an end in 2015.
So, what should America's doctors do? Well, we're not in the business of advising people about how to spend their hard earned money. But we do believe that it's human nature to be conservative and to withhold investing when uncertainty about income, expenses, and returns on investments is high, and doubly so when confidence in the people and organizations making the decisions that effect those variables is low. That this is precisely the situation in which most doctors in America who work in small and medium size medical practices now find themselves may be more determinative about the future of the EHR market place and adoption of EHR products and services than any advice we could offer. This interplay of uncertainty, confidence, and money for health IT investments may also create challenges and give direction for Dr. Blumenthal and his staff at ONC as they operationalize the policy and regulations mandated by ARRA/HITECH. For one thing, as Ben Bernanke so wisely pointed out many years ago, resolving disputes will be key to ending uncertainty and returning confidence to this shaky state of affairs. But we're not sure that even Congress has the will to resolve the disputes that would set our health care system on a reasonable course and reduce the uncertainties we've discussed here.