Life Science Compliance Update

November 24, 2015

Stage III Meaningful Use CMS Doubles Down as Opposition Mounts

Despite Congressional interest in delaying Stage 3 of the electronic health record Meaningful Use program and the AMA coming out strongly against the roll out, HHS recently went forward and published its 752-page Final Rule for Stage 3 and Stage 2 modifications. One of the central pieces to the Affordable Care Act, along with the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) was the implementation and "meaningful use" of electronic health records (EHRs)—through the HITECH provision. Implemented in stages, Stage 3 is the final step of the program.

Final Rule

The 2015-2017 Meaningful Use (MU) Final Rule establishes MU program requirements for 2015 - 2017, creating a new "Modified Stage 2." All providers, including those in the Medicaid program, would attest to a single set of objectives and measures beginning in 2015. The Modified Stage 2 program reduces the number of requirements and lowers certain measure thresholds compared to Stage 2. All providers are required to move to Stage 3 beginning in 2018 regardless of their prior participation or Stage of MU.

The final rule establishes a modified version of Stage 2 for 2015 - 2017 for all participants. In 2015, all participants must follow Modified Stage 2 with accommodations for providers who were schedule to demonstrate Stage 1 in 2015. Next year, in 2016, all participants would follow the Modified Stage 2 with a smaller set of accommodations for providers who were scheduled to demonstrate Stage 1 in 2016. The following year, in 2017, participants may select to report on Modified Stage 2 or the full version of Stage 3 outlined in the Stage 3 rule. By 2018 all participants would follow the full version of Stage 3.

CMS recently announced a new FAQ that allows any provider to apply for a hardship exception for 2015 under the "extreme and uncontrollable" circumstances category due to the lateness of the modifications rule. The agency has also clarified that physicians switching EHRs or experiencing issues with a vendor product may apply for a hardship exemption under the existing "extreme and uncontrollable circumstances" category.

The MU Stage 3 Final Rule allows for a 60-day public comment period to continue to consider program changes and align requirements with the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA). This is the last stage of MU and Stage 3 requirements are optional in 2017 and mandatory for all participants in 2018, no matter when they started the MU program.

All Stage 3 MU participants (both physicians and hospitals) must meet 8 objectives. Each objective may include multiple measures. Objections include: (1) Protect Electronic Health Information; (2) Electronic Prescribing (eRx); (3) Clinical Decision Support (CDS); (4) Computerized Provider Order Entry (CPOE); (5) Patient Electronic Access; (6) Coordination of Care through Patient Engagement; (7) Health Information Exchange (HIE); and (8) Public Health and Clinical Data Registry Reporting.

Physicians in opposition, economics of practice changing in part due to Health IT

As reported by Politico, the American Medical Association helped lead the charge to pause finalization of the Stage 3 rules. AMA argued Stage 3 takes a "drastic step backwards" from CMS's proposed changes to Stage 2. The implementation of electronic health records has been especially difficult for independent and smaller physician practices—one of the most consistent arguments against moving forward with the MU program.

As also reported in Modern Healthcare, according to a recent report, independent practices acquired by hospitals are seeing operating costs spike as they try to keep up with the federal electronic health record requirements. Multispecialty physician practices spent an average of $20,693 per full-time-equivalent doctor in 2014, a 12% increase from the year before and a 34% increase from 2010.

More than 3,100 physician groups were surveyed for the report, which includes information on other administrative issues such as staffing ratios. It found that between 2010 and 2014, physician practices increased use of non-physician providers, such as physician assistants and nurse practitioners, to meet demand and compete to hire from a limited supply of doctors. Administrative burdens and costs related to running an independent practice has a growing number of physicians opting to become employees of hospitals. Reports indicate that physicians will continue leaving private practice to work for hospitals and that only a third of physicians would remain independent by the end of 2016.

Along these lines, Politico recently asked if electronic health records are creating a spike in hospital mergers. According to American Hospital Association CEO Rick Pollack in a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing, he estimated hospitals will spend between $20 million and $200 million on EHRs each year depending on their size, and that dollar amount is unmanageable for smaller hospitals. This causes them to merge and results in fewer players in the market. "The fundamental restructuring that CMS anticipates in response to its alternative reimbursement models will undoubtedly come with a high cost that will be particularly difficult to bear for small and stand-alone hospitals," Pollack testified.

GOP Doctors Caucus Resistance

In line with the aforementioned physician resistance, the GOP Doctors Caucus announced plans to ask House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan for end-of-year legislation to include a delay in Stage 3 of meaningful use and broad exemptions for the programs penalties. This forthcoming letter is in addition to a letter sent in September to the Obama administration. The September letter asked for a delay in meaningful use Stage 3, and was signed by approximately 25% of House members. 

Tennessee Representative Phil Roe, chairman of the GOP Doctors Caucus, said, "Many of us believe the appropriations process is also an effective way to get this done. The Caucus is open to various vehicles for these requests and looks forward to working with Speaker Ryan and other House leaders on these important initiatives."

Problems with vendors

Over the past year, health IT vendors have come under scrutiny for the practice of intentionally blocking the sharing of patient information, hurting progress toward a national goal of interoperability. New legislation, the Transparent Ratings on Usability and Security to Transform Information Technology Act of 2015, or the "TRUST IT Act" hopes to combat this practice. The legislation aims to ensure that certified health IT systems are performing as promised in the field, and establish a rating system that will enable consumers to compare different products based on that performance.

According to Senator Bill Cassidy's press release—one of the three Senate physiciansthe legislation will also:

  • Authorize the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology to make publicly available information, such as summaries, screen shots, or video demonstrations, showing how certified health information technology meets certification requirements;
  • Require the certification program to establish that health IT products meet applicable security requirements, incorporate user-centered design, and achieve interoperability, consistent with the reporting criteria developed for the Health IT Rating Program;
  • Require health IT vendors to attest they do not engage in certain information blocking activities, including nondisclosure clauses in their contracts, as a condition of certification and maintenance of certification;
  • Authorize the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate claims of information blocking and assess civil monetary penalties on any person or entity determined to have committed information blocking.

This comes after CMS also published recommendations earlier this year to address the information blocking problem, including:

  • Assisting federal and state law enforcement agencies in identifying information blocking cases that violate current laws;
  • Bolstering oversight of certified health IT capabilities "in the field" through new requirements;
  • Creating a nationwide health information exchange governance framework;
  • Requiring certified health IT developers to disclose additional costs, limitations and restrictions associated with their products;
  • Working with CMS to create incentive payments that reward interoperability and health data sharing; and
  • Working with HHS' Office for Civil Rights to educate stakeholders on how HIPAA privacy and security standards apply to information sharing.

Now, despite federal rules, many developers of electronic health records are not meeting federal design requirements, according to research published in JAMA. The researchers from the National Center for Human Factors in Healthcare at MedStar Health in Washington, D.C. found that not all vendors filed required reports on usability testing. The report adds to the mounting concern that EHRs are failing to raise the quality and safety of healthcare and lower its costs.

Gag orders, another previously raised issue, are a separate, but related concern. A Politico investigation found that some of the biggest firms marketing electronic record systems inserted "gag clauses" in their taxpayer-subsidized contracts, effectively forbidding health care providers from talking about glitches that slow their work and potentially jeopardize patients. The website obtained 11 contracts through public record requests from hospitals and health systems in New York City, California, and Florida that use six of the biggest vendors of digital record systems. With one exception, each of the contracts contains a clause protecting potentially large swaths of information from public exposure. This is the first time the existence of the gag clauses has been conclusively documented. Politico faults the government's slow response, noting that little has been done to address the problem despite many years of warnings.



There is a significant amount of opposition to current health information technology policies both within the government and the larger medical community. Stage 3 of Meaningful Use could ultimately be delayed through Congressional action, and larger legislative fixes may be necessary to combat the litany of problems raised by stakeholders over the past few years. The ultimate goals of electronic health records may be laudable, but the unintended consequences could be far greater than the Administration had originally perceived.

August 31, 2015

EHR: Congress Moves to Delay and Modify Timeline for Meaningful Use


There is a growing movement in Congress to push the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to postpone Stage 3 of the electronic health record meaningful use program. Recently, Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) introduced a bill (HR 3309) that would delay federal rulemaking for Stage 3 of the meaningful use program until 2017 or when certain conditions are met. Under the proposed Stage 3 rule, eligible providers would have the option of applying for the incentives in 2017 and would have to attest to meeting the criteria in 2018. The comment period on the proposed rule ended May 29, and the CMS is expected to finalize it soon.

During a hearing on meaningful use Stage 3, interoperability and patient access to data, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) stated: "To put it bluntly, physicians and hospitals have said to me that they are literally terrified of the next implementation stage ... because of the complexity and because of the fines that will be levied,” Fierce Health IT writes.

Industry and Medicine’s Response

As reported in Medscape, industry's response to the Stage 3 proposal has been mainly negative. The Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), for example, said that Stage 3 should not be finalized until more providers had participated in Stage 2. As of May 2015, just 50,983 eligible professionals and 1461 eligible hospitals had attested in Stage 2, according to the CMS. The MGMA also wants CMS to eliminate Stage 3 objectives that require patient engagement.

The American Medical Association (AMA) also criticized the proposal, saying more time is needed to evaluate the impact of the first two stages and that the Stage 3 criteria were too ambitious. And both the American Hospital Association and the College of Health Information Management Executives (CHIME) said the CMS should not finalize Stage 3 until it had had more experience with Stage 2.

It comes as no surprise the AMA strongly supports Congressional intervention to delay Stage 3. "The AMA thanks Rep. Ellmers for sharing our deep concern with a Meaningful Use program that continues to move ahead without first fixing barriers faced by physicians, hospitals, vendors and patients," said AMA President Steven J. Stack, M.D. "Under Rep. Ellmers' leadership, federal regulations would be revised to provide greater flexibility for physicians to meet the Meaningful Use requirements and ensure that Stage 3 of the program is developed in step with other efforts to modernize our nation's health care system."

The bill also addresses key interoperability challenges by ensuring EHR systems are capable of sending, receiving, and seamlessly incorporating patient data.

"This important bill addresses many of the fundamental shortcomings in government regulations that have made many EHR systems very difficult to use," said Dr. Stack. "We heard loud and clear from physicians at the AMA's first-ever town hall meeting on EHRs and the Meaningful Use program that the systems they use are cumbersome, poorly designed and unable to 'talk' to each other thereby preventing necessary transmission of patient medical information."

Struggling to Adopt

Physicians are struggling, as noted in a recent AMA report. One physician the article profiled is in his fourth year of meaningful use, and said the program has slowed down productivity in his practice by about 25-30 percent.

“There are so many more things that you have to report on that I don’t think really add to patient care,” the doctor said. “I’m trying to work with it. I think meaningful use is not necessarily a bad thing. But I don’t think [patients] have an idea what we’re going through. To give them a copy of their note, it’s not just printing it … there are four or five steps just to give somebody a copy of their note.”

The government has known about the problems cited by physicians for a long time. Back in May 2014, CMS delayed for a year the compliance date by which certain early participants in the program meet Stage 2 requirements. The relatively high percentage of providers—62%—still stuck on Stage 1 in the fourth full year of the program bears out the wisdom of the CMS' Stage 2 compliance extension.

The latest data tracks with an analysis done earlier this year by the American Academy of Family Physicians, according to Dr. Steven Waldren, director of the AAFP's Alliance for eHealth Innovation. Waldren said the number of family physicians who attested to meaningful use in 2014 fell nearly 40% to about 23,500 practitioners compared with 2013. Physicians specializing in internal medicine experienced a similar drop-off, he said.

Additionally, a new study from Weill Cornell Medical College describes the emergence of "systematic differences" between physicians who participated in the Medicare and Medicaid EHR Incentive Programs and those who did not. That "could lead to disparities in patient care," according to Weill Cornell researchers, who examined 26,368 physicians across New York State, using payment data from 2011 to 2012, the first two years of meaningful use.


This issue raises serious questions for broader federal health care goals. As we previously wrote, HHS aims to tie 30 percent of payments to quality, including the use of electronic records, by the end of 2016, and 50 percent by the end of 2018. The new MACRA legislation and recent CMS Medicare proposed rules operate as if meaningful use is moving forward as scheduled. Should Congress delay implementation of the next stage of meaningful use, it could have a ripple effect across HHS goals, possibly causing added confusion for physicians and hospitals. It will be important to monitor this as it develops; legislation may need to be passed soon, as CMS wishes to finalize its Stage 3 meaningful use regulations.


January 27, 2015

Secretary Burwell Announces HHS Quality Payment Goals, Introduces Timeline For Shifting Medicare Reimbursements From Volume to Value


Big changes are on the horizon in how Medicare reimburses healthcare providers. Yesterday, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), Sylvia Burwell, announced a timeline and measurable goals to move the Medicare program toward reimbursing providers based on the quality, rather than the quantity, of care they give their patients. 

The shift from the traditional fee-for-service Medicare payment structure to a more outcome-based model hinges on "alternative payment models." These payments emphasize patient outcomes over getting paid for individual medical services, notes Burwell. "In alternative payment models, providers are accountable for the quality and cost of care for the people and populations they serve moving away from the old way of doing things, which amounted to 'the more you do, the more you get paid.'"

In 2011, Medicare made almost no payments to providers through alternative payment models, according to HHS. Today, alternative payments tied to "quality" represent approximately 20 percent of Medicare payments. HHS aims to get that up to 30 percent by the end of 2016, and 50 percent by the end of 2018. 

Burwell expounded upon these models in yesterday's blog post announcing the government's plan: 

[T]hrough Accountable Care Organizations, providers partner together on a patient’s care and get rewarded for delivering better care while spending less. In a Patient Centered Medical Home model, instead of doctors working separately in their own siloes, care coordinators oversee all the care a patient is getting.  That means patients are more likely to get the right tests and medications rather than getting duplicative tests, procedures, etc. These medical homes typically offer patients access to a doctor or other clinician 7 days a week, 24 hours a day including through extended office hours on evenings and weekends.

Another example is a “bundled payment” model.  In this model, providers are reimbursed together for the entire cost of what’s called an “episode of care” – something like say a hip replacement.  So lab tests, pre-visits, hip replacements, and so forth are all paid for in the same lump sum – whether the same test is conducted once, twice or five times.  This creates an incentive to deliver better care that makes patients healthier and keeps them out of the hospital.

A major aspect of the government's effort relies on incentives to drive providers to these alternative payment models. Burwell lists two other strategies. First is a focus on "care delivery," which Burwell indicates will be developing policies to encourage greater integration within practice sites, coordination among providers, and attention to population health with a priority on prevention and wellness. “With more emphasis on coordinated care, patients are more likely to get the right tests and medications rather than taking tests twice or getting procedures they do not need,” her announcement states. Second, CMS is also working on information sharing to create more "transparency on the cost and quality of care, to bring electronic health information to inform care, and to bring the most recent scientific evidence to the point of care in order to bolster clinical decision-making."

HHS also announced the creation of a Health Care Payment Learning and Action Network, through which HHS will work together with private payers, employers, consumers, providers, state Medicaid programs, and other partners to expand alternative payment models beyond Medicare. 

A blog announcing the new value goals from Secretary Burwell is here, and a perspectives piece in the New England Journal of Medicine from Secretary Burwell is here.


The response to the reforms has been cautiously optimistic.  American Medical Association President Robert Wah said many of his members were frustrated and anxious about changes in the system and that while he was “encouraged” by the announcement, physicians needed more flexibility in the way the payments would be administered to be able to participate, the Wall Street Journal reports

Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) president and chief executive officer John J. Castellani issued the following statement on Secretary Burwell’s announcement:

“PhRMA supports Secretary Burwell’s goal of advancing affordable, high quality and patient centered health care, and today’s announcement represents an important step forward."

“New medicines make important contributions to value in health care for patients, payers and policymakers, and we look forward to working with the secretary on this new initiative. As HHS works to evaluate and expand new models of health care payment and delivery, we believe it is essential they:

1)    Incorporate clear mechanisms for recognizing the value of new treatment advances, such as precision medicine and other new tests and treatments;

2)    Are grounded in strong quality measures and incentives, with emphasis on outcomes that matter to patients;

3)    Support shared decision making between providers and patients, which is informed by high quality evidence about the full range of available treatment options; and,

4)    Are transparent and enable manufacturers and other stakeholders to work collaboratively in support of high-quality, high-value health care.

Read PhRMA's Principles for Payment Delivery and Reforms here



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