Eyes Wide Shut: Meaningful Use Stage 2 Incentive Program Hardships

Posted on March 5, 2014 I Written By

Mandi Bishop is a hardcore health data geek with a Master's in English and a passion for big data analytics, which she brings to her role as Dell Health’s Analytics Solutions Lead. She fell in love with her PCjr at 9 when she learned to program in BASIC. Individual accountability zealot, patient engagement advocate, innovation lover and ceaseless dreamer. Relentless in pursuit of answers to the question: "How do we GET there from here?" More byte-sized commentary on Twitter: @MandiBPro.

In my January update on Meaningful Use Stage 2 readiness, I painted a dismal picture of a large IDN’s journey towards attestation, and expressed concern for patient safety resulting from the rush to implement and adopt what equates to, at best, beta-release health IT. Given the resounding cries for help from the healthcare provider community, including this February 2014 letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, I know my experience isn’t unique. So, when rumors ran rampant at HIMSS 2014 that CMS and the ONC would make a Meaningful Use announcement, I was hopeful that relief may be in sight.

Like AHA , I was disappointed in CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner’s announcement. The new Stage 2 hardship exemptions will now include an explicit criteria for “difficulty implementing 2014-certified EHR technology” – a claim which will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and may result in a delay of the penalty phase of the Stage 2 mandate. But it does nothing to extend the incentive phase of Stage 2 – without which, many healthcare providers would not have budgeted for participation in the program, at all, including the IDN profiled in this series. So how does this help providers like mine?

Quick update on my IDN’s progress towards Stage 2 attestation, with $MM in target incentive dollars at stake. We must meet ALL measures; there is no opportunity to defer one. The Transition of Care (both populating it appropriately, and transmitting it via Direct) is the primary point of concern.

The hospital EHR is ready to generate and transmit both Inpatient Summary and Transition of Care C-CDAs. The workflow to populate the ToC required data elements adds more than 4 minutes to the depart process, which will cause operational impacts. None of the ambulatory providers in the IDN have Direct, yet; there is no one available to receive an electronic ToC. Skilled resources to implement Direct with the EHR upgrades are not available until 6-12 weeks after each upgrade is complete.

None of the 3 remaining in-scope ambulatory EHRs have successfully completed their 2014 software upgrades. 2 of the 3 haven’t started their upgrades. 1 has not provided a DATE for the upgrade.

None of the ambulatory EHRs comes with a Clinical Summary C-CDA configured out-of-the-box. 1 creates a provider-facing Transition of Care C-CDA, but does not produce the patient-facing Clinical Summary. (How did this product become CEHRT for 2014 measures?) Once the C-CDA is configured, each EHR requires its own systems integrator to develop the interface to send the clinical document to an external system.

Consultant costs continue to mount, as each new wrinkle arises. And with each wrinkle, the ability to meet the incentive program deadlines, safely, diminishes.

Playing devil’s advocate, I’d say the IDN should have negotiated its vendor contracts to include penalty clauses sufficient to cover the losses of a missed incentive program deadline – or, worst case scenario, to cover the cost of a rip-and-replace should the EHR vendor not acquire certification, or have certification revoked. The terms and conditions should have covered every nuance of the functionality required for Stage 2 measures.

But wait, CMS is still clarifying its Stage 2 measures via FAQs. Can’t expect a vendor to build software to specifications that weren’t explicitly defined, or to sign a contract that requires adherence to unknown criteria.

So, what COULD CMS and the ONC do about it? How about finalizing your requirements BEFORE issuing measures and certification criteria? Since that ship’s already sailed, change the CEHRT certification process.

1. Require vendors to submit heuristics on both initial implementation and upgrades, indicating the typical timeline from kick-off to go-live, number of internal and external resources (i.e., third-party systems integrators), and cost.
2. Require vendors to submit customer-base profile detailing known customers planning to implement and/or upgrade within calendar year. AND require implementation/upgrade planning to incorporate 3 months of QA time post-implementation/upgrade, prior to go-live with real patients.
3. Require vendors to submit human resource strategy, and hiring and training program explicitly defined to support the customer-base profile submitted, with the typical timeframes and project resource/cost profiles submitted.
4. Require vendor products to be self-contained to achieve certification – meaning, no additional third-party purchase (software or professional services) would be necessary in order to implement and/or upgrade to the certified version and have all CMS-required functionality.
5. Require vendor products to prove the CEHRT-baseline functionality is available as configurable OOTB, not only available via customization. SHOW ME THE C-CDA, with all required data elements populated via workflow in the UI, not via some developer on the back-end in a carefully-orchestrated test patient demo script.
6. Require vendor products adhere to an SLA for max number of clicks required to execute the task. It is not Meaningful Use if it’s prohibitively challenging to access and use in a clinical setting.

Finally, CMS could redefine the incentive program parameters to include scenarios like mine. Despite the heroic efforts being made across the enterprise, this IDN is not likely to make it, with the fault squarely on the CEHRT vendors’ inability to deliver fully-functional products in a timely manner with skilled resources available to support the installation, configuration, and deployment. Morale will significantly decline, next year’s budget will be short the $MM that was slated for further health IT improvements, and the likelihood that it will continue with Stage 3 becomes negligible. Vendor lawsuits may ensue, and the incentive dollar targets may be recouped, but the cost incurred by the organization, its clinicians, and its patients is irrecoverable.

Consider applying the hardship exemption deadline extension to the incentive program participants.