HHS’ $30B Interoperability Mistake

Posted on May 8, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

Sometimes things are so ill-advised, in hindsight, that you wonder what people were thinking. That includes HHS’ willingness to give out $30 billion to date in Meaningful Use incentives without demanding that vendors offer some kind of interoperability. A staggering amount of money has been paid out under HITECH to incentivize providers to make EMR progress, but we still have countless situations where one EMR can’t talk to another one right across town.

When you ponder the wasted opportunity, it’s truly painful. While the Meaningful Use program may have been a good idea, it failed to bring the interoperability hammer down on vendors, and now that ship has sailed. While HHS might have been able to force the issue back in the day, demanding that vendors step up or be ineligible for certification, I doubt vendors could backward-engineer the necessary communications formats into their current systems, even if there was a straightforward standard to implement — at least not at a price anyone’s willing to pay.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I realize that “interoperability” is an elastic concept, and that the feds couldn’t just demand that vendors bolt on some kind of module and be done with it. Without a doubt, making EMRs universally interoperable is a grand challenge, perhaps on the order of getting the first plane to fly.

But you can bet your last dollars that vendors, especially giants like Cerner and Epic, would have found their Wilbur and Orville Wright if that was what it took to fill their buckets with incentive money. It’s amazing how technical problems get solved when powerful executives decide that it will get done.

But now, as things stand, all the government can do is throw its hands up in the air and complain. At a Senate hearing held in March, speakers emphasized the crying need for interoperability between providers, but none of the experts seemed to have any methods in their hip pocket for fixing the problem. And being legislators, not IT execs, the Senators probably didn’t grasp half of the technical stuff.

As the speakers noted, what it comes down to is that vendors have every reason to create silos and keep customers locked into their product.  So unless Congress passes legislation making it illegal to create a walled garden — something that would be nearly impossible unless we had a consensus definition of interoperability — EMR vendors will continue to merrily make hay on closed systems.  It’s not a pretty picture.