Edmund Billings

flying cadeuciiWhy politics, parity and performance requirements mean behavioral health hospitals should adopt now.

Imagine you go to work one day and your boss says all employees will be evaluated based on the performance of a new set of job skills that require additional training and, perhaps, new computer hardware and software. The boss also announces that some employees will be reimbursed for the cost of acquiring these skills and tools. You aren’t among this privileged group.

In government, this is called an unfunded mandate. The unlucky employee in this case is psychiatric hospitals, who aren’t eligible for Meaningful Use incentives even while Congress and the Obama administration have legislated greater accountability:

A precursor to the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 mandated that insurers must make the financial cost of benefits—co-pays, deductibles, out-of-pocket maximums—equal for psychiatric and physical care.

By making behavioral health an Essential Health Benefit, the ACA requires health plans to cover mental health on par with other types of care.

On October 1, 2012, CMS launched the Inpatient Psychiatric Facility Quality Reporting Program (IPFQR), a pay-for-reporting program in which facilities could lose federal dollars by not providing data on Hospital Based Inpatient Psychiatric Services (HBIPS):

  •  Screening for violence risk, psycho trauma Hx, patient strengths
  •  Hours of physical restraint use
  • Hours of seclusion use
  • Patients discharged on multiple antipsychotic medications
  • Patients discharged on multiple antipsychotic medications with appropriate justification
  • Post discharge continuing care plan created
  • Post discharge continuing care plan transmitted to next level of care provider upon discharge

Whether explicit or implicit, these programs amount to unfunded EHR mandates. How so?

Organizations still on paper records will find it expensive and inefficient to capture events and collect results for both reporting to government and submitting claims to insurance companies. Hospitals will need to train clinicians to document post-discharge continuity of care plans.

They will have to train staff to send plans by snail mail or fax to the provider at the next level. Then they will also need to do chart reviews to assure that all these steps took place and the data is recorded in a spreadsheet or database. Any quality improvement process that requires benchmarking and scoreboarding of performance based on these measures will be a tremendous challenge using paper records.

Continue reading “An Unfunded Mandate For Behavioral Health”

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flying cadeuciiDid you hear the one about the CMS administrator who was asked what it would take to delay the 2014 ICD-10 implementation deadline? An act of Congress, he smugly replied, according to unverified reports.

Good thing he didn’t say an act of God.

So, now that CMS has been overruled by Congress, who wins and who loses? Who’s happy and who’s not?

The answers to those questions illustrate the resource disparity that prevails in healthcare and, mirroring the broader economy, threatens to get worse. The disappointed Have-a-lot hospitals are equipped with the resources to meet ICD-10 deadlines and always felt pretty confident of a positive outcome; the Have-not facilities were never all that sure they would make it and are breathing a collective sigh of relief.

First off, it is necessary to recognize that ICD-10 is far superior to ICD-9 for expressing clinical diagnoses and procedures. Yes, some of the codes seem ridiculous … “pecked by chickens,” for example. But people do get pecked by chickens, or plowed into by sea lions, so I believe the intent is positive, as will be the results.

An example: I saw my physician this past week at a Have-a-lot health system in San Francisco and I asked what she thinks of the ICD-10 extension.

“We’re already using (ICD-10) in our EHR and it is much better than ICD-9,” she said. “When I want to code for right flank pain, it’s right there. I don’t have to go with back pain or abdominal pain and fudge flank in. It’s easier and more accurate.”

“If I was still on paper and not our EHR, which I like,” she added, “my superbill would go from 1 page to 10. SNOMED works.”

Continue reading “The ICD-10 Extension: For Whatever Reasons, Congress Did the Right Thing.”

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Let me concede from the outset that, in this blog post, I lean toward the negative—dire predictions, worst-case scenarios, a bit of doom and gloom, etc.

But I ask you, oh gentle, patient reader, how could I not?

Let’s go to the satellite. You can see warm air from a low-pressure system (Meaningful Use Stage 2, not changed dramatically by the one-year extension) collide with cool, dry air from a high-pressure area (the turmoil of Obamacare) and tropical hurricane moisture (ICD-10). Tell me you don’t see the Perfect Storm yourself.

And here we sit in our little fishing boat, waiting for the mighty ocean to consume us.

Overly dramatic? Certainly, but still not wholly inappropriate, I will argue.

Consider a recent report on the HIMSS/WEDI ICD-10 National Pilot Program collaborative that was created to, “…minimize the guess work related to ICD-10 testing and to learn best practices from early adopter organizations.”

Designed to ascertain the realities of the entire healthcare system adopting and using ICD-10, this pilot included an education and adoption program for all participants, followed by a set of “waves” in which diagnoses for the 100-200 most common medical conditions were actually coded and submitted using ICD-10.

The end-to-end testing approach …

…would encompass a number of medical test cases that mirror actual processing, including situations with multiple “hops” or “steps” between providers, clearinghouses, and health plans; the identification of high-risk medical test cases to help prioritize testing; the identification of available testing partners; and key reporting and sharing of test results. The test environment must mirror production.

And how did this pilot testing go? (Cue dark, foreboding music here …)

The average accuracy was in the 60 percent range with low scores around 30 percent.  Yes, some medical scenarios had nearly 100 percent accuracy, which is great. But very low accuracy accompanied a number of very common conditions. Not so great.

Continue reading “Does ICD-10 Pilot Forecast a Perfect Storm for Healthcare?”

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Remember the Ford Pinto and the AMC Pacer, aka the Pregnant Pinto?

Both serve as reminders of an in era in which the American auto industry lost its way and assumed drivers would buy whatever they put on the lot. Foreign competition, primarily from Japan, filled the void created by American apathy for quality and design, and the industry has never been the same.

Admittedly, the comparison of cars and EHRs is less than apt, but health IT also assumes healthcare will buy what we’re selling because the feds are paying them to. And, like the Pinto, what we’re selling inspires something less than awe. In short, we are failing our clinical users.

Why? Because we’re cramming for the exam, not trying to actually learn anything.

Myopic efforts to meet certification and compliance requirements have added functionality and effort tangential to the care of the patient. Clinicians feel like they are working for the system instead of it working for them. The best EHRs are focused on helping physicians take care of patients, with Meaningful Use and ICD-10 derivative of patient care and documentation.

I recently had dinner with a medical school colleague who gave me insight into what it’s like to practice in the new healthcare era. A urologist in a very busy Massachusetts private practice, he is privileged to use what most consider “the best EHR.”

Arriving from his office for a 7 PM dinner, he looked exhausted, explaining that he changed EHRs last year and it’s killing him. His day starts at 7 AM and he’s in surgery till noon. Often double or triple booked, he sees 24 patients in the afternoon, scribbling notes on paper throughout as he has no time for the EHR. After dinner he spends 1.5 to 2 hours going over patient charts, dictating and entering charges. What used to take 1 hour now requires much more with the need to enter Meaningful Use data and ICD coding into the EHR.  He says he is “on a treadmill,” that it should be called “Meaningless Use,” and he can’t imagine what it will be like “when ICD-10 hits.”

My friend’s experience is representative, not anecdotal. A recent survey by the American College of Physicians and American EHR Partners provides insight into perceptions of Meaningful Use among clinicians.

According to the survey, between 2010 and 2012, general user satisfaction fell 12 percent and very dissatisfied users increased by 10 percent.

Continue reading “Darwinian Health IT: Only Well-Designed EHRs Will Survive”

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Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s long-awaited (in health IT circles, anyway) decision on the Department of Defense’s core health IT system has been made. The VA’s VistA system is out as the preferred DoD. Unless it’s not.

I’ll explain.

In his May 21 memo, Hagel directed the DoD to initiate a competitive process for a commercially available electronic health record (EHR) solution.  Understandably, the secretary has to create a level playing field, a competitive process, so he can tell Congress with certainty that due diligence was done. Hate it a lot or hate it a little, this is the nature of our political process.

Already, many are spinning Hagel’s decision as a huge win for proprietary solutions; popular blogger Mr. HIStalk has already established Epic as the frontrunner in the upcoming DoD derby.

But before we simply anoint Judy Faulkner the queen of American health IT, I want, as the Brits say, to throw a spanner in the works.

Commercial ≠ Proprietary

A careful review of the Hagel memo and other recent statements from his top lieutenants reveal a more progressive vision and clear requirements for an open architecture and service model.

From the Hagel memo:

I am convinced that a competitive process is the optimal way to ensure we select the best value solution for DoD … A competitive process will allow DoD to consider commercial alternatives that may offer reduced cost, reduced schedule and technical risk, and access to increased current capability and future growth in capability by leveraging ongoing advances in the commercial marketplace … Also, based on DoD’s market research, a VistA-based solution will likely be part of one or more competitive offerings that DoD receives.

To sum up, the secretary has directed the DoD to go commercial instead of developing and maintaining their own VistA-based solution, but commercialized VistA-based solutions will be included in the competitive process.

Continue reading “Defense Probably Goes Commercial, Not Necessarily Proprietary”

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A question: What is the opposite of health IT return on investment?

The answer: Unintended financial consequences, or UFCs, for short.

The scenario: A sophisticated medical center health system begins to roll out an expensive proprietary EHR and shortly thereafter sustains an operating loss, leaving no choice but to put the implementation on hold. The operating loss is attributed to “unintended financial consequences” directly related to buying a very expensive EHR system.

This is exactly the situation at MaineHealth, who selected Epic. As recently reported, a little while ago Maine Medical Center President and CEO Richard Peterson sent a memo to all employees saying the hospital …

… has suffered an operating loss of $13.4 million in the first half of its fiscal year. The rollout of MaineHealth’s estimated $160 million electronic health record system, which has resulted in charge capture issues that are being fixed, was among several reasons Maine Med’s CEO cited for the shortfall.

“Through March (six months of our fiscal year), Maine Medical Center experienced a negative financial position that it has not witnessed in recent memory,” Richard Peterson, president and CEO of the medical center, wrote in the memo to employees.

Peterson’s memo outlines the specific UFCs that explain, in part, MaineHealth’s operating loss:

  • Declines in patient volume because of efforts to reduce re-admissions and infections
  • Problems associated with being unable to accurately charge for services provided due to the EHR roll out
  • An increase in free care and bad debt cases
  • Continued declining reimbursement from Medicare and MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program

These challenges are common to just about any medical system in the country, making MaineHealth potentially a harbinger of things to come for those hospitals and health systems that pay multi-millions of dollars for a health IT system.

Continue reading “Unintended Financial Consequences”

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“No aspect of health IT entails as much uncertainty as the magnitude of its potential benefits.”

A few years into the Meaningful Use program, it seems this quote from a 2008 Congressional Budget Office report entitled “Evidence on the Costs and Benefits of Health Information Technology” may have been written with the assistance of a crystal ball.

Fast forward to 2013.

“Just from reading a week’s worth of news, it’s obvious that we don’t really know whether healthcare IT is better or worse off than before [Meaningful Use incentives],” popular blogger and health IT observer Mr. HIStalk wrote earlier this year.

So, perhaps RAND was hypnotized by Cerner funding when they created their rosy prognosis (hearken back, if you will, to 2005 and the projected $81 billion in annual healthcare savings). Maybe they were just plain wrong and the most recent RAND report stands as a tacit mea culpa.

Either way, we’re left with hypotheses that, while not incontrovertible, are gaining traction:

  1. Health IT benefits will manifest gradually over an extended timeframe.
  2. Those benefits will not quickly morph into reduced costs, if they ever do.
  3. Because of 1 and 2, investing in a hugely expensive electronic health record system is potentially risky.

How risky? Without question, massive health IT expense and the predominant proprietary IT model are threats to a hospital or health system’s financial viability, to its solvency.

We’re seeing some examples even now.

Continue reading “For Hospitals On the Edge, HIT Is the Tipping Point”

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In these politically polarized times, Americans expect Republicans and Democrats to disagree on every detail right down to what day of the week it is. This is especially true in the posturing hurly-burly of the House, where members can appeal to the few select priorities of a gerrymandered district to win re-election.

So it’s remarkable and unexpected when any legislation exits a House committee with unanimous bipartisan support. It’s even more surprising when the legislation potentially threatens the status quo for established corporate interests—in this case information technology companies.

The Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITAR)—sponsored by California Republican Darrell Issa along with Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly, and supported by every member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee—threatens to put open-source software on par with proprietary by labeling it a “commercial item” in federal procurement policies. The proposal wouldn’t give open source a privileged position, just an equal one.

Continue reading “Washington’s New Open Source IT Law Could Change Everything. Let’s Count the Ways …”

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I want to begin by sharing well-known information for the sake of comparison. Both the Apple and Google Android platforms welcome the introduction of new and (sometimes) highly valuable functionality through plug-n-play applications built by completely different companies.

You know that already.

Healthcare IT companies welcome you to pay them great sums of money for enhancements to their closed systems. This is on top of substantial maintenance fees that may or may not lead to hoped-for updates in a timely fashion. (With all due respect to the just-announced CommonWell Health Alliance, Meaningful Use does mandate interoperability. The participants are, in effect, marketing what they have to do anyway to try to differentiate themselves from Epic.)

The respective results of these two divergent approaches are probably also familiar to you.

Consumer technology has taken over the planet and altered almost every aspect of our lives. These companies and industries have flourished by knowing what customers will want before those same customers feel even a faint whiff of desire. We are both witnesses to and beneficiaries of dazzling speed-to-solution successes.

Back on planet health IT, the American College of Physicians reports that the percentage of doctors who are “very dissatisfied” with their EHRs has risen by 15 percent since 2010; in a poll, 39 percent said they would not recommend their EHR to colleagues and 38 percent said they would not buy the same system again.

I will argue that the difference between health IT and every other progressive, mature industry is the application of open source, open standards and, most importantly, open platforms. These platforms supporting interoperability and substitutability have enabled Apple and Google—and NOAA weather data, the Facebook Developer Platform, Amazon Web Services, Salesforce, Twitter, eBay, etc.—to drive innovation and competition instead of stifling it. They have created markets where everyone wins—the client, the application developer and the platform company.

The keys to open platforms are application programming interfaces (APIs) through which a platform-building company (i.e., Apple, Google) welcomes the contributions of clients and other companies. The more elegant the API, the more it can support true interoperability.

Continue reading “Beyond HIT Operability: Open Platforms Are Key”

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Anyone who understands the importance of continuity of care knows that health information exchange is essential. How are we supposed to cut waste and duplication from the healthcare system and truly focus on patient welfare if doctor B has no idea what tests doctor A conducted, or what the results were?

The predominant proprietary HIT vendors know this, yet have engaged in prolonged foot-dragging on interoperability and even basic data interfacing. Yes healthcare IT is their business, but interoperability is not in their nature.

As we’ve seen before, the problem is with the business model.

The proprietary business model makes the vendor the single source of HIT for hospital clients. Complexity and dependence are baked into both solutions and client relationships, creating a “vendor lock” scenario in which changing systems seems almost inconceivable.

In the proprietary world, interfacing with third-party products is a revenue generation strategy and technical challenge; the latter, though unnecessary, justifies the former. When we go looking for the reasons that healthcare is a laggard compared with other industries, this single-source model—the obstacle to much-needed competition and innovation—is a primary culprit.

To be fair, provider organizations, with little if any incentive to exchange patient data before the advent of Meaningful Use, haven’t shown much collaborative spirit either. In the fee-for-service model, why would a healthcare organization let patients slip from their grasp? Health reform is finally mandating needed change, but when will proprietary vendors actually enable the interoperability hospitals and practices soon have to demonstrate?

Recent rumblings from Washington, DC, suggest the feds are losing patience.

Continue reading “Is Interoperability Possible in HIT? And if it Is, Do We Even Want it?”

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