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The Final Stage Of Meaningful Use Rules: Will EHRs Finally Pay Off?


March 25th, 2015

Six years ago, President Obama signed into law the HITECH Act, which spelled out a path to a nationwide health information technology infrastructure.  The goal was simple:  every doctor, nurse, and hospital in America should use electronic health records — and do it in a way that leads to better care delivered more efficiently.  The Act provided $30 billion in incentives for providers and hospitals who met the criteria for “Meaningful Use”, which the Obama administration was given the authority to define.  The rules were set up to be rolled out in three stages, and while the first two stages have been out for a while, the criteria for the third and final stage of Meaningful Use (MU) were finally released on March 20.

David Blumenthal, the first national coordinator under HITECH, used the analogy of the Meaningful Use program as an escalator — with the first stage focused on just getting people on board and each stage requiring a higher level of use — which would focus on demonstrating better care through advanced EHR use.  Put more simply, the goal of the three stages was to first get providers to just start using EHRs, and then over time to get them to use the systems more frequently, more robustly, and ultimately, in ways that lead to better, more efficient care.

The new stage 3 rule reflects both the successes and the failures of the first two stages.  It moves toward making the EHR market more open and competitive, and providing more choices, in ways that I think are helpful — but possibly not helpful enough.

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Should Health Lawyers Pay Attention To The Administration’s Privacy Bill?


March 13th, 2015

Health care lawyers justifiably ignored the 2012 Obama administration consumer privacy framework because it expressly and broadly exempted entities subject to HIPAA, stating “To avoid creating duplicative regulatory burdens, the Administration supports exempting companies from consumer data privacy legislation to the extent that their activities are subject to existing Federal data privacy laws.”

In contrast, the administration’s 2015 draft bill, the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights Act, though based on that framework, substantially affects health care entities, including those subject to HIPAA, and so demands more attention in the health law community.

The “HIPAA clause” in the draft bill is subtly different (and noticeably narrower than its preemption of state law clause): “If a covered entity is subject to a provision of this Act and a comparable provision of a Federal privacy or security law [the list includes HIPAA] such provision of this Act shall not apply to such person to the extent that such provision of Federal privacy or security law applies to such person.”

The “provision” wording is key; most of the key substantive provisions in the draft bill—those going to consent, withdrawal of consent, context, and data minimization—do not crosswalk to any comparable provisions in HIPAA. For HIPAA mavens this has the potential of “more stringent than” all over again, but at a higher stakes table. (For nonmavens, this refers to questions raised by HIPAA’s language leaving intact state laws “more stringent than” HIPAA’s privacy protections.)

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Takeaways From Health Affairs’ Big Data Twitter Chat


March 9th, 2015

Recently, we at Health Affairs hosted a Twitter chat with the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) on the topic of big data. The chat was a follow-up to the Health Affairs issue, “Using Big Data To Transform Care.

During the Twitter chat, we moderated a question-and-answer session with PCORI’s Rachael Fleurence, Comparative Effectiveness Research (CER) Methods and Infrastructure Program Director, and Sarah Greene, CER Methods and Infrastructure Associate Director, while many users joined in the conversation with #healthdatachat.

So how does PCORI define “big data?” PCORI responded with the following tweet: “rapid accrual of large quantities of diverse patient experience data.” 

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Where Is HITECH’s $35 Billion Dollar Investment Going?


March 4th, 2015

On April 16, 2013, we released “REBOOT: Re-examining the Strategies Needed to Successfully Adopt Health IT,” outlining concerns with implementation of the Health Information Technology and Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act. Specifically, we asked: What have the American people gotten for their $35 billion dollar investment?

Two years after releasing the white paper, and six years since enactment of the HITECH Act, the question remains. There is inconclusive evidence that the program has achieved its goals of increasing efficiency, reducing costs, and improving the quality of care.

We have been candid about the key reason for the lackluster performance of this stimulus program: the lack of progress toward interoperability. Countless electronic health record vendors, hospital leaders, physicians, researchers, and thought leaders have told us time and again that interoperability is necessary to achieve the promise of a more efficient health system for patients, providers, and taxpayers.

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To Advance Medical Innovation, Put International Best Practices In A National Context


March 4th, 2015

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series of several posts related to the 4th European Forum on Health Policy and Management: Innovation & Implementation, held in Berlin, Germany on January 29 and 30, 2015. For updates on the Forum’s results please check the Center for Healthcare Management’s website or follow on Twitter @HCMatColumbia.

Innovation is a driving force of any nation’s economy, shaping the delivery of new services and the development of new products. Nowhere is this more true than in the US health care system which represents nearly a fifth of GDP. Medical innovation has catalyzed improvements in the tools and therapies used to deliver health care, the practices of managing its delivery, and even the financing of its delivery.

These innovations evolve primarily through research supported by universities and government institutions including the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Research supported by the NIH allows for development of treatments that target a large number of diseases and conditions. However, identifying new therapies is only a fraction of the work needed to ensure that the right patients receive that treatment at the right time, the right dose, and for the right reasons.

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Top 5 Health Care Trends to Watch in 2015


February 25th, 2015

With a new Congress, health care is once again an issue of tremendous scrutiny and debate. Many of the federal policy debates in 2015 will be largely symbolic, resulting in little more than tweaks to existing law.

However, health care policy is not just a matter for Congress to consider. A range of issues will play out in the states and the private sector, effectively shaping the future. Below are the top trends we’re watching this year.

The Year of Living Interoperably

From electronic health records (EHRs) to clinical measures and decision support tools, providers are inundated with new technologies that automate processes and capture new types of data. However, these systems are limited in their potential because they don’t all “talk” to one another. They’re locked away within proprietary technologies that render them the equivalent of an email account that only sends messages to people in your company, or a phone that only makes calls in your house.

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Health Affairs Event Reminder: Biomedical Innovation


February 3rd, 2015

Biomedical innovation lengthens and enriches our lives through breakthroughs in medications and care, but it is has also been the leading source of health care cost growth over the past few decades. The February 2015 thematic issue of Health Affairs examines the topic from many perspectives.

You are invited to join us on Thursday, February 5, at a forum featuring authors from the new issue at the W Hotel in Washington, DC. Panels will cover pharmaceuticals; biotechnology; medical devices; and accelerating, diffusing, and financing innovation.

WHEN: 
Thursday, February 5, 2015
9:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

WHERE: 
W Hotel Washington
515 15th Street NW
Washington, DC, Great Room, Lower Level

REGISTER NOW!

Follow live Tweets from the briefing @Health_Affairs, and join in the conversation with #HA_BiomedInnovation.

See the full agenda. Among the confirmed speakers are:

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What Does ‘Big Data’ Mean In The Context Of Coordinated Care?


December 30th, 2014

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series of several posts related to the 4th European Forum on Health Policy and Management: Innovation & Implementation, to be held in Berlin, Germany on January 29 and 30, 2015. For more information or to request your personal invitation contact the Center for Healthcare Management.

In economic terms, coordinated care is about vertical integration in the quest of a competitive edge. Just as IBM subjects its computer chip suppliers to rigorous monitoring to ensure a high-quality, high-price product, so too do health insurance companies impose restrictions on participating providers designed to achieve a favorable ratio of patient utility to cost and with it, a competitive ratio of the utility of policy holders to premiums.

This endeavor calls for collating information from multiple sources, which is typical of big data: When does a particular health problem arise? Why? What is the appropriate intervention? Who should provide it? How should it be carried out? Where should it be provided? Answers to these questions are necessary for the implementation of quality assurance programs.

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Sovaldi, Harvoni Payment Issues Lead Health Affairs Blog November Most-Read List


December 24th, 2014

A piece by Laura Fegraus and Murray Ross on the challenges of paying for lifesaving but high-priced drugs like Sovaldi and Harvoni from was the most-read Health Affairs Blog post for November. This was followed by a critical analysis of workplace wellness programs from Al Lewis, Vik Khanna, and Shana Montrose.

Next came a post on the 2016 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters Proposed Rule from Tim Jost, and then a look at health care policy after the mid-term elections from James Capretta.

The full top-ten list for November is below.

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The Strategic Challenge Of Electronic Health Records


December 16th, 2014

Despite a 2005 prediction that electronic health records (EHRs) would save $81 billion, RAND Corporation just validated clinicians’ complaints in a report describing EHRs as “a unique and vexing challenge to physician professional satisfaction.” The American Medical Association also published EHR “usability priorities” – strong evidence that current EHRs don’t support doctors in practicing medicine.

In a world of Apple-typified simplicity, why is it so hard to get the right EHR? Because, unlike Apple, EHR designers haven’t started with the question of how value can be created for users of the technology. Technology isn’t the problem. The challenge is in articulating clinicians’ information needs and meeting them by making the right tradeoffs between corporate and business unit strategies.

EHRs can, and should, provide relevant information when and where clinicians need it, recognizing that care is not a commodity and that different care processes have different information needs. User interfaces must anticipate clinicians’ needs rather than require individual user design. EHRs need to eliminate low-information pop-ups and alarms and instead provide alerts and reminders that are both timely and relevant. They must be designed with assiduous attention to data entry requirements, replacing blind mandates with thoughtful assignment of the task and the timing.

In this post I look at how rethinking the design of EHRs can better balance the different strategic needs within care delivery organizations.

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From The National Coordinator For Health IT: The Federal Strategy For Collecting, Sharing, And Using Electronic Health Information


December 8th, 2014

Making our nation’s health and wellness infrastructure interoperable is a top priority for the Administration, and government plays a vital role in advancing this effort. Federal agencies are purchasers, regulators, and users of health information technology (health IT), as they set policy and insure, pay for care, or provide direct patient care for millions of Americans. They also contribute toward protecting and promoting community health, fund health and human services, invest in infrastructure, as well as develop and implement policies and regulations to advance science and support research.

The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) has a responsibility to coordinate across the federal partners to achieve a shared set of priorities and approach to health IT.  To that end, today we released the draft Federal Health IT Strategic Plan 2015-2020, and we are seeking feedback on the federal health IT strategy.  This Strategic Plan represents the collective priorities of federal agencies for modernizing our health ecosystem; however, we need your input. We will accept public comment through February 6, 2015. Please offer your insights on how we can improve our strategy and ensure that it reflects our nation’s most important needs.

A collection of 35-plus federal departments and agencies collaborated to develop the draft Federal Health IT Strategic Plan: 2015-2020, identifying key federal health IT priorities for the next six years (Exhibit 1). The landscape has dramatically changed since the last federal health IT strategyWhen we released that Plan, the HITECH Act implementation was in its infancy. Since then, there has been remarkable growth in health IT adoption. Additionally, the Affordable Care Act implementation has begun to shift care delivery and reimbursement from fee-for-service to value-based care.

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Transforming Rural Health Care: High-Quality, Sustainable Access To Specialty Care


December 5th, 2014

Editor’s note: This post is also authored by Kate Samuels, a project manager at Brookings. It is informed by a case study, the fourth  in a series made possible through the Merkin Initiative on Physician Payment Reform and Clinical Leadership, a special project to develop clinician leadership in health care delivery and financing reform. The case study will be presented on Monday, December 8 using a “MEDTalk” format featuring live story-telling and knowledge-sharing from patients, providers, and policymakers.

Health care for patients in rural communities across the United States remains a unique challenge.  Despite many programs aimed at improving access to physicians and hospitals, access to health care providers remains limited.  While 19.3 percent of Americans live in a rural area, only about 10 percent of physicians practice in rural areas.  Similarly, 65 percent of all Health Professional Shortage Areas are in rural areas.  Rural residents often face long travel distances to see a specialist after what can be months waiting for an appointment.

Even in areas where rural primary care providers (PCPs) remain committed and engaged in the community, often having been raised and educated there, these providers often lack close connections to specialists who tend to be based in larger, urban academic medical centers (AMC).  The result is a worsening gap in specialty care access, in turn leading to a deteriorative effect on rural provider morale and retention.

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Using Mobile Technology To Overcome Jurisdictional Challenges To A Coordinated Immunization Policy


November 14th, 2014

On March 20, 2014, the Government of Canada and the federal Minister of Health announced the release of ImmunizeCanada (ImmunizeCA), a smart phone application (app) designed to both provide accurate information on immunization for Canadians and allow them to track their and their family members’ immunizations. Based on a prototype developed for parents in Ontario and in partnership with the Canadian Public Health Association, our development team received funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada to build a national immunization app. Our task was to build an Apple- and Android-compatible app, containing all 13 provincial/territorial schedules and vaccine information from each jurisdiction in both Canadian official languages (French and English).

The application uses demographic information entered by the user and the most recent recommended provincial vaccination schedule to create a custom profile for multiple family members. It allows parents to track and carry their children’s immunizations records on their mobile device. The application also permits the creation of adult-specific schedules and includes information on travel vaccines. It is also possible to sync the app with your smartphone calendar, generate appointment reminders, print or share an immunization record by email, and access answers to common questions.

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ONC’s 10-Year Roadmap Towards Interoperability Requires Changes To The Meaningful Use Program


November 3rd, 2014

When I first started using an electronic health record (EHR) almost 20 years ago, many policy makers misunderstood how EHRs worked. They assumed that care was somehow made better just by having an EHR, and thus began to build the case for policy aimed at supporting EHR adoption. Fortunately as the HITECH Act of 2009 makes clear, a maturation of thinking has occurred; it is not the mere presence of technology, but good technology used in meaningful ways that can improve care.

Magical thinking about EHRs has disappeared, but a similar irrational belief has taken its place– this time around the concept of interoperability, the ability of systems to communicate with each other. Today there are two widely held concerns about the current state of interoperability. The first concern is that the Meaningful Use program, the federal EHR incentive program created by the HITECH Act, was doomed from the outset because it did not begin with the requirement that EHRs be capable of communicating with each other.

The other is that while it was acceptable not to have required full interoperability at the outset; now it is the single most important task at hand. By this account, interoperability must be put on a fast track, because the American people will be unlikely to reap any benefits from health information technology without it. I strongly disagree with both of these positions.

First, if the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) had conditioned the start of Stage 1 of Meaningful Use on full interoperability of EHRs, I believe that the already slow rate of EHR adoption would grind to a halt. Vendor development and purchase decisions would go on indefinite hold awaiting final interoperability specifications. But by moving forward with the status quo of partial interoperability, most providers, nurses, clinical, and nonclinical staff now have at least basic if not reasonably good health IT functionality and literacy. For example, the majority of prescriptions for non-controlled substances are now sent electronically — not a complete remedy for medication errors, but an important move away from those errors due to illegible handwriting. And more importantly, many tens of millions of patients have received (many for the first time) summaries of their health care visits and hospitalizations that provide a list of their active problems, medications, and medical allergies, not to mention written instructions.

Secondly, many providers and provider systems have gone ahead, even where interoperability is limited to laboratory data, with quality improvement programs that leverage their EHRs for analytics, point-of-care decision support, and patient education and engagement tools. As an example, in 2012 the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, together with the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association launched Million Hearts® – a program of education, screening, and treatment – with an end point of preventing one million new heart attacks and strokes over 5 years.

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Learning From Missed Opportunities To Diagnose US Ebola Patient Zero


October 30th, 2014

Over a century ago American physician Richard Cabot wrote about misdiagnoses, recognizing: “A goodly number of ‘classic’ time-honored mistakes in diagnosis are familiar to all experienced physicians because we make them again and again. Some of these we can avoid; others are almost inevitable, but all should be borne in mind and marked on medical maps by a danger-signal of some kind: ‘In this vicinity look out for hidden rocks,’ or ‘Dangerous turn here, run slow.’”

Ironically, despite the dramatic changes in the nature of medical practice over the last 100 years, Cabot’s words ring more true than ever today. This has become especially clear in the last few weeks since Ebola first touched US shores, uncovering one of the biggest ongoing vulnerabilities of outpatient medicine – misdiagnosis.

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Ebola And EHRs: An Unfortunate And Critical Reminder


October 28th, 2014

The Dallas hospital communication lapse that led to the discharge of a Liberian man with Ebola symptoms is an example of the failure of American health care system to effectively share health information, even within single institutions. It is not possible to know whether a faster response would have saved Thomas Eric Duncan’s life or reduced risk to the community and health workers.

What is clear is that rapid sharing of information is one of the elements critical to halting the spread of Ebola. Had all members of the initial care team known of the patient’s recent arrival from an Ebola-stricken country and acted appropriately to quarantine Mr. Duncan, this would have limited the chance of exposing the public and enabled faster preventive protocols for treating personnel.

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Implementing Health Reform: The Qualified Health Plan Federal Exchange Participation Agreement And More


October 21st, 2014

CMS continues to put the pieces into place that are needed for the launch of the 2015 coverage year.  On October 16, 2014, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released at its REGTAP.info website the certification agreement and privacy and security agreement that qualified health plan (QHP) insurers must sign with CMS to access the federally facilitated exchange (FFE), the federally facilitated SHOP (FF-SHOP), and CMS Data Services Hub.  The agreement focuses primarily on obligations that the QHP insurer undertakes to protect personally identifiable information and to ensure secure communications with CMS, although it also addresses the effective date and termination of the agreement and a few other issues.  Most of the terms of the agreement are unremarkable, and this post will only comment on a few.

QHP insurers undertake under the agreement to protect personally identifiable information and to ensure secure communications with CMS in conformity with applicable laws, regulations, and standards.  They must also ensure that their contractors and downstream entities comply with these requirements.  QHP insurers agree to report any personally identifiable information incidents or breaches to CMS within 72 to 96 hours.  This is a far cry from the one-hour breach reporting requirement proposed by CMS last year but never finalized, but perhaps recognizes the difficult of identifying and assessing a security breach.

The agreement expressly recognizes that QHP insurers have developed their products based on the assumption that advance premium tax credits and cost-sharing reduction payments will be available through the marketplace and that QHP insurers could have cause to terminate the agreement if this assumption ceases to be valid.  This could be interpreted as a reference to the Halbig/King litigation which currently threatens the availability of tax credits and cost-sharing reduction payments through the FFE, but could also have been included in recognition of the likely Republican takeover of the Senate and the possibility that the Republicans may accomplish through budget reconciliation or otherwise their longstanding goal of repealing the ACA.  As the agreement is renewable from year to year, this clause may contemplate contingencies in the indefinite as well as the near future

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An Interview With George Halvorson: The Kaiser Permanente Renaissance, And Health Reform’s Unfinished Business


September 30th, 2014

For decades, health policymakers considered Kaiser Permanente the lode star of delivery system reform.  Yet by the end of 1999, the nation’s oldest and largest group model HMO had experienced almost three years of significant operating losses, the first in the plan’s history. It was struggling to implement a functional electronic health record, and had a reputation for inconsistent customer service.  But most seriously, it faced deep divisions between management and the leadership of its powerful Permanente Federation, which represents Kaiser’s more than 17,000 physicians, over both strategic direction and operations of the plan.

Against this backdrop, Kaiser surprised the health plan community by announcing in March 2002 the selection of a non-physician, George Halvorson, as its new CEO.  Halvorson had spent most of his career in the Twin Cities, most recently as CEO of HealthPartners, a successful mixed model health plan.  Halvorson’s reputation was as a product innovator; he not only developed a prototype of the consumer-directed health plan in the mid-1990’s, but also population health improvement objectives for its membership, both firsts in the industry.

During his twelve year tenure as CEO, Halvorson not only guided the plan to solid profitability, but added a million members in California, its largest market, despite a devastating recession and a national retreat of commercial HMO membership.  He invested over $6 billion in computerized patient care systems and population health management infrastructure, healed the breach with Kaiser’s physicians, and markedly increased its consumer satisfaction scores, earning 5 STAR ratings under Medicare Advantage.  He left the organization at the end of 2013 with more than $53 billion in revenues and more than $19 billion in reserves and investments.

This interview covers Halvorson’s time at Kaiser, his views of health reform, including the unfinished reform agenda, and his public health activism.  It was conducted by Jeff Goldsmith, a veteran health industry analyst, and Associate Professor of Public Health Sciences at the University of Virginia.  Jeff is a member of the editorial board of Health Affairs.

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It’s Hard To Be Neutral About Network Neutrality For Health


August 18th, 2014

Network Neutrality (NN) has been in the news because the FCC is considering two options related to a neutral Internet: Either regulation forcing NN, or an approach that creates a “fast lane” on the Internet for those content providers that are willing to pay extra for it.

Network Neutrality reflects a vision of a network in which users are able to exchange and consume data, as they choose, without the interference of the organization providing the network basic data transport services. The second option, preferential service, entertains the possibility that the Internet could become what the National Journal describes as “a dystopia run by the world’s biggest, richest companies.”

However, the problem of network neutrality is more complex. Full network neutrality could also lead to a tragedy of the commons in which application developers compete for the use of “free” bandwidth for services to win customers while clogging networks and lowering performance for all. Key stakeholders providing basic transport Internet service such as Comcast, Verizon, or AT&T, and large Internet savvy content providers like Google have a clear understanding of the debate and what they stand to gain or lose from network neutrality.

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New Health Policy Brief: Interoperability


August 13th, 2014

A new Health Policy Brief from Health Affairs and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) looks at the issue of health information exchange. The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act was signed into law at the very beginning of the Obama administration, bringing with it significant investments in health information technology (IT)—$26 billion to date.

While the adoption of electronic health records (EHRs) has increased considerably since 2009, there is very little electronic information sharing among clinicians, hospitals, and other providers. New models of care delivery, designed to improve quality and reduce costs, require both interoperable EHRs and electronic information sharing to be effective. This Health Policy Brief looks at the efforts the federal government has made to improve interoperability and increase the level of electronic information sharing, as well as the barriers to achieving these goals.

Topics covered in this brief include:

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