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Usability, Interoperability are Political Questions: We Need an EHR Users Group

Posted on October 6, 2017 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

Over the years, writers on blogs such as this and EMRandHIPAA have vented their frustration with lousy EHR usability and interoperability problems. Usability has shown no real progress unless you count all the studies showing that its shortcomings cost both time and money, drives users nuts, and endangers patient lives.

The last administration’s usability approach confused motion with progress with a slew of roadmaps, meetings and committees. It’s policies kowtowed to vendors. The current regime has gone them one better with a sort of faith based approach. They believe they can improve usability as long it doesn’t involve screens or workflow. Interoperability has seen progress, mostly bottom up, but there is still no national solution. Patient matching requires equal parts data, technique and clairvoyance.

I think the solution to these chronic problems isn’t technical, but political. That is, vendors and ONC need to have their feet put to the fire. Otherwise, in another year or five or ten we’ll be going over the same ground again and again with the same results. That is, interop will move ever so slowly and usability will fade even more from sight – if that’s possible.

So, who could bring about this change? The one group that has no organized voice: users. Administrators, hospitals, practioners, nurses and vendors have their lobbyists and associations. Not to mention telemed, app and device makers. EHR users, however, cut across each of these groups without being particularly influential in any. Some groups raise these issues; however, it’s in their context, not for users in general. This means no one speaks for common, day in day out, EHR users. They’re never at the table. They have no voice. That’s not to say there aren’t any EHR user groups. There are scads, but vendors run almost all of them.

What’s needed is a national association that represents EHR users’ interests. Until they organize and earn a place along vendors, etc., these issues won’t move. Creating a group won’t be easy. Users are widely dispersed and play many different roles. Then there is money. Users can’t afford to pony up the way vendors can. An EHR user group or association could take many forms and I don’t pretend to know which will work best. All I can do is say this:

EHR Users Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose, But Your Frustrations!

A Look At Share Everywhere, Epic’s Patient Data Sharing Tool

Posted on September 28, 2017 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.

Lately, it looks like Epic has begun to try and demonstrate that it’s not selling a walled garden. Honestly, I doubt it will manage to convince me, but I’m trying to keep an open mind on the matter. I do have to admit that it’s made some steps forward.

One example of this trend is the launch of App Orchard, a program allowing medical practices and hospitals to build customized apps on its platform. App Orchard also supports independent mobile app developers that target providers and patients.

Marking a break from Epic’s past practices, the new program lets developers use a FHIR-based API to access and Epic development sandbox. (Previously, Epic wouldn’t give mobile app developers permission to connect to its EMR unless a customer requested permission on its behalf.) We’ll have to keep an eye on the contracts they require developers to sign to see if they’re really opening up Epic or not.

But enough about App Orchard. The latest news from Epic is its launch of Share Everywhere, a new tool which will give patients the ability to grant access to their health data to any provider with Internet access. The provider in question doesn’t even have to have an EHR in place. Share Everywhere will be distributed to Epic customers at no cost in the November update of its MyChart portal.

Share Everywhere builds on its Care Everywhere tool, which gives providers the ability to share data with other healthcare organizations. Epic, which launched Care Everywhere ten years ago, says 100% of its health system customers can exchange health data using the C-CDA format.

To use Share Everywhere, patients must log into MyChart and generate a one-time access code. Patients then give the code to any provider with whom they wish to share information, according to a report in Medscape. Once they receive the code, the clinician visits the Share Everywhere website, then uses the code once they verify it against the patient’s date of birth.

As usual, the biggest flaw in all this is that Epic’s still at the center of everything. While patients whose providers use Epic gain options, patients whose health information resides in a non-Epic system gain nothing.

Also, while it’s good that Epic is empowering patients, Direct record sharing seems to offer more. After all, patients using Direct don’t have to use a portal, need not have any particular vendor in the mix, and can attach a wide range of file formats to Direct messages, including PDFs, Word documents and C-CDA files. (This may be why CHIME has partnered with DirectTrust to launch its broad-based HIE.)

Participating does require a modest amount of work — patients have to get a Direct Address from one of its partners — and their provider has to be connected to the DirectTrust network. But given the size of its network, Direct record sharing compares favorably with Share Everywhere, without involving a specific vendor.

Despite my skepticism, I did find Share Everywhere’s patient consent mechanism interesting. Without a doubt, seeing to it that patients have consented to a specific use or transmission of their health data is a valuable service. Someday, blockchain may make this approach obsolete, but for now, it’s something.

Nonetheless, overall I see Share Everywhere as evolutionary, not revolutionary. If this is the best Epic can do when it comes to patient data exchange, I’m not too impressed.

Connecticut Medical Society Launches HIE When State Can’t Pull It Off

Posted on September 7, 2017 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.

The Connecticut State Medical Society had had enough. Its members had waited 10 years for the state of Connecticut to launch a functioning HIE, to no avail, so the Society decided to take matters into its own hands.

Now, the state’s physicians, healthcare facilities, and assorted other providers are sharing data via the medical society’s new HIE, CTHealthLink.  Participants who use the HIE not only share data but also have access to reports designed add value to physician consults and improve outcomes.

The CSMS project must have been daunting, but at least it had a model to use. Its approach is based on a provider-backed HIE in use in Kansas, the Kansas  Health Information Network (KHIN). KHIN brought the Kansas Hospital Association, the Wichita Health Information Exchange and greater Kansas City HIE eHealthAlign together.

If you read the HIE project overview, it becomes clear that CSMS wants to help members navigate MACRA requirements.  “The goal is to empower physicians as they transition to the new alternative payment models involving quality reporting, advancing care information, and improvement activities,” the CSMS notes on the CTHealthLink site.

Prior to the CTHealthLink rollout, CSMS leaders worried that clinicians would miss out on Medicare and Medicaid incentives provided for participating in an HIE, and be subject to penalties instead, according to Matthew Katz, Executive Vice President and chief executive officer of the physician group, who spoke to The CT Mirror.

Under MIPS, all physicians and many other clinicians can get incentives for participating in a HIE, an attractive prospect. However, the flipside of this is that eligible providers who don’t participate in MIPS by the end of 2017 would see a 4% cut in their Medicare reimbursement in 2019, obviously attractive prospect. Small wonder that the CSMS couldn’t wait longer.

The state’s clinicians have been quite patient to date. According to the Mirror, Connecticut’s first HIE effort was in 2007, when they attempted to create network specifically for Medicaid. Though the network was backed by a $5 million grant, it failed, as few physicians had adopted digital medical records at the time.

Between 2007 and 2016, the state followed up with two more efforts to connect state providers. Both efforts failed to create a functioning system, despite having $18 million in funding to back its efforts.

In contrast, CTHealthLink is steaming ahead. But there is a catch. At $50 to $120 per physician per month, joining the HIE can be pretty pricey, especially for large practices. For example. at $50 per physician per month, a medical practice of 1,200 physicians would pay approximately $720,000 per year, or as much as $1.7 million if the $120 monthly fee applied, noted Lisa Stump, chief information officer for Yale New Haven Health, who also spoke to the Mirror. This may very well inhibit the HIE’s growth.

Meanwhile, despite previous failures, the state of Connecticut hasn’t given up on creating its own HIE, this time with $14 million in federal and state funding. One of the key drivers is an effort to make Medicaid reporting simpler, which the state’s Department of Social Services is cheering on. The state’s HIE is scheduled to be functioning by the beginning of 2018. Maybe the fourth time will be the charm.

Provider-Backed Health Data Interoperability Organization Launches

Posted on April 12, 2017 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.

In 1988, some members of the cable television industry got together to form CableLabs, a non-proft innovation center and R&D lab. Since then, the non-profit has been a driving force in bringing cable operators together, developing technologies and specifications for services as well as offering testing and certification facilities.

Among its accomplishments is the development of DOCSIS (Data-over-Cable Service Interface Specification), a standard used worldwide to provide Internet access via a cable modem. If your cable modem is DOCSIS compliant, it can be used on any modern cable network.

If you’re thinking this approach might work well in healthcare, you’re not the only one. In fact, a group of powerful healthcare providers as just launched a health data sharing-focused organization with a similar approach.

The Center for Medical Interoperability, which will be housed in a 16,000-square-foot location in Nashville, is a membership-based organization offering a testing and certification lab for devices and systems. The organization has been in the works since 2011, when the Gary and Mary West Health Institute began looking at standards-based approaches to medical device interoperability.

The Center brings together a group of top US healthcare systems – including HCA Healthcare, Vanderbilt University and Community Health Systems — to tackle interoperability issues collaboratively.  Taken together, the board of directors represent more than 50 percent of the healthcare industry’s purchasing power, said Kerry McDermott, vice president of public policy and communications for the Center.

According to Health Data Management, the group will initially focus on acute care setting within a hospital, such as the ICU. In the ICU, patients are “surrounded by dozens of medical devices – each of which knows something valuable about the patient  — but we don’t have a streamlined way to aggregate all that data and make it useful for clinicians,” said McDermott, who spoke with HDM.

Broadly speaking, the Center’s goal is to let providers share health information as seamlessly as ATMs pass banking data across their network. To achieve that goal, its leaders hope to serve as a force for collaboration and consensus between healthcare organizations.

The project’s initial $10M in funding, which came from the Gary and Mary West Foundation, will be used to develop, test and certify devices and software. The goal will be to develop vendor-neutral approaches that support health data sharing between and within health systems. Other goals include supporting real-time one-to-many communications, plug-and-play device and system integration and the use of standards, HDM reports.

It will also host a lab known as the Transformation Learning Center, which will help clinicians explore the impact of emerging technologies. Clinicians will develop use cases for new technologies there, as well as capturing clinical requirements for their projects. They’ll also participate in evaluating new technologies on their safety, usefulness, and ability to satisfy patients and care teams.

As part of its efforts, the Center is taking a close look at the FHIR API.  Still, while FHIR has great potential, it’s not mature yet, McDermott told the magazine.

Two Worth Reading

Posted on April 6, 2017 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

HIT is a relatively small world that generates no end of notices, promotions and commentaries. You can usually skim them, pick out what’s new or different and move on. Recently, I’ve run into two articles that deserve a slow, savored reading: Politico’s Arthur Allen’s History of VistA, the VA’s homegrown EHR and Julia Adler-Milstein’s take on interoperability’s hard times.

VistA: An Old Soldier That May Just Fade Away – Maybe

The VA’s EHR is not only older than just about any other EHR, it’s older than just about any app you’ve used in the last ten years. It started when Jimmy Carter was in his first presidential year. It was a world of mainframes running TSO and 3270 terminals. Punch cards still abounded and dialup modems were rare. Even then, there were doctors and programmers who wanted to move vet’s hard copy files into a more usable, shareable form.

Arthur Allen has recounted their efforts, often clandestine, in tracking VistA’s history. It’s not only a history of one EHR and how it has fallen in and out of favor, but it’s also a history of how personal computing has grown, evolved and changed. Still a user favorite, it looks like its accumulated problems, often political as much as technical, may mean it will finally meet its end – or maybe not. In any event, Allen has written an effective, well researched piece of technological history.

Adler-Milstein: Interoperability’s Not for the Faint of Heart

Adler-Milstein, a University of Michigan Associate Professor of Health Management and Policy has two things going for her. She knows her stuff and she writes in a clear, direct prose. It’s a powerful and sadly rare combination.

In this case, she probes the seemingly simple issue of HIE interoperability or the lack thereof. She first looks at the history of EHR adoption, noting that MU1 took a pass on I/O. This was a critical error, because it:

[A]llowed EHR systems to be designed and adopted in ways that did not take HIE into account, and there were no market forces to fill the void.

When stage two with HIE came along, it meant retrofitting thousands of systems. We’ve been playing catch up, if at all, ever since.

Her major point is simple. It’s in everyone’s interest to find ways of making I/O work and that means abandoning fault finding and figuring out what can work.

Health IT End of Year Loose Ends

Posted on December 13, 2016 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

In that random scrap heap I refer to as my memory, I’ve compiled several items not worthy of a full post, but that keep nagging me for a mention. Here are the ones that’ve surfaced:

Patient Matching. Ideally, your doc should be able to pull your records from another system like pulling cash from an ATM. The hang up is doing patient matching, which is record sharing’s last mile problem. Patients don’t have a unique identifier, which means to make sure your records are really yours your doctor’s practice has to use several cumbersome workarounds.

The 21st Century Cures Act calls for GAO to study ONC’s approach to patient matching and determine if there’s a need for a standard set of data elements, etc. With luck, GAO will cut to the chase and address the need for a national patient ID.

fEMR. In 2014, I noted Team fEMR, which developed an open source EHR for medical teams working on short term – often crises — projects. I’m pleased to report the project and its leaders Sarah Diane Draugelis and Kevin Zurek are going strong and recently got a grant from the Pollination Project. Bravo.

What’s What. I live in DC, read the Washington Post daily etc., but if I want to know what’s up with HIT in Congress, etc., my first source is Politico’s Morning EHealth. Recommended.

Practice Fusion. Five years ago, I wrote a post that was my note to PF about why I couldn’t be one of their consultants anymore. Since then the post has garnered almost 30,000 hits and just keeps going. As pleased as I am at its longevity, I think it’s only fair to say that it’s pretty long in the tooth, so read it with that in mind.

Ancestry Health. A year ago September, I wrote about Ancestry.com’s beta site Ancestry Health. It lets families document your parents, grandparents, etc., and your medical histories, which can be quite helpful. It also promised to use your family’s depersonalized data for medical research. As an example, I set up King Agamemnon family’s tree. The site is still in beta, which I assume means it’s not going anywhere. Too bad. It’s a thoughtful and useful idea. I also do enjoy getting their occasional “Dear Agamemnon” emails.

Jibo. I’d love to see an AI personal assistant for PCPs, etc., to bring up related information during exams, capture new data, make appointments and prepare scripts. One AI solution that looked promising was Jibo. The bad news is that it keeps missing its beta ship date. However, investors are closing in on $100 million. Stay tuned.

 

Health Data Sharing Varies Widely From State To State

Posted on November 4, 2016 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.

A new report from the CDC concludes that many physicians have interacted with shared health data, though only a small percentage of them had checked off all of the boxes by sending, receiving, integrating and searching for patient health data from other providers. The study also found that data sharing practices varied widely from state to state.

According to the CDC data, 38.2% of office-based physicians had sent data electronically to their peers in 2015. A nearly identical amount (39.3%) had received data, 31.1% integrated such data and 34% has searched such data from other providers.

On the other hand, physicians’ data interactions seem to have been somewhat limited. The CDC indicated that just 8.7% of office-based doctors had performed all four of these data sharing activities, a level which suggests that few are completely comfortable with such exercises.

Another striking aspect to the data was that it laid out the extent to which physicians in different states had different levels of data sharing activity.

For example, it found that in 2015, physicians fell below the national average for sending patient data in Idaho (19.4%), Connecticut (22.7%) and New Jersey (24.3%). In another anomaly, 56.3% of physicians in Arizona had sent information electronically other providers, a figure well above the 38.2% national average, with Idaho at the bottom of the range.

Meanwhile, the percentage of physicians who had received information electronically from other providers fell below the national average of 38.3% in Louisiana (23.6%), Mississippi (23.6%), Missouri (24.2%) and Alabama (24.3%). States where physicians exceeded the average for receiving information included Massachusetts (52.9%), Minnesota (55%), Oregon (59.2%) in Wisconsin (66.5%).

Where things get particularly interesting is when we look at the states were physicians had integrated electronic patient information they had received into their health data systems, a significantly more advanced step than sending or receiving data.

States that fell below the 31.1% average of physicians during such integration include Alaska (18.4%), the District of Columbia (18.6%), Montana (18.6%), Alabama (18.8%) and Idaho (20.6%). States that performed above the national average included Indiana (44.2%) and Delaware (49.3%).

Also worth noting was the diverse levels to which physicians had searched for patient health information from other providers, a data point which might suggest how much confidence they had in finding data. (Physicians who felt interoperability wasn’t serving them might not bother to search after all.)

The study found that while the average level of physicians who searched was 34%, several states fell below that average, including the District of Columbia (15.1%), Mississippi (19.7%), Pennsylvania (20.8%), Texas (21%), Missouri (21.6%) and Oklahoma (22.8%).

On the other hand, 10 states boasted a higher level physicians who searched than the national average. These included Ohio (47.2%), Alaska (47.3%, Colorado (47.5%), Maryland (47.9%), Virginia (48.3%), North Carolina (48.8%), Delaware (53.9%), Wisconsin (54.1%), Washington (58%) and Oregon (61.2%).

If it’s true that integrating and searching for data indicate higher levels of faith in the ability to use shared data, this actually looks like an encouraging report. Clearly, we have a long way to go, but substantial numbers of physicians are engaging in shared data use. To me this looks like progress.

A Circular Chat On Healthcare Interoperability

Posted on September 6, 2016 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.

About a week ago, a press release on health data interoperability came into my inbox. I read it over and shook my head. Then I pinged a health tech buddy for some help. This guy has seen it all, and I felt pretty confident that he would know whether there was any real news there.

And this is how our chat went.

—-

“So you got another interoperability pitch from one of those groups. Is this the one that Cerner kicked off to spite Epic?” he asked me.

“No, this is the one that Epic and its buddies kicked off to spite Cerner,” I told him. “You know, health data exchange that can work for anyone that gets involved.”

“Do you mean a set of technical specs? Maybe that one that everyone seems to think is the next big hope for application-based data sharing? The one ONC seems to like.” he observed. “Or at least it did during the DeSalvo administration.”

“No, I mean the group working on a common technical approach to sharing health data securely,” I said. “You know, the one that lets doctors send data straight to another provider without digging into an EMR.”

“You mean that technology that supports underground currency trading? That one seems a little bit too raw to support health data trading,” he said.

“Maybe so. But I was talking about data-sharing standards adopted by an industry group trying to get everyone together under one roof,” I said. “It’s led by vendors but it claims to be serving the entire health IT world. Like a charity, though not very much.”

“Oh, I get it. You must be talking about the industry group that throws that humungous trade show each year.” he told me. “A friend wore through two pairs of wingtips on the trade show floor last year. And he hardly left his booth!”

“Actually, I was talking about a different industry group. You know, one that a few top vendors have created to promote their approach to interoperability.” I said. “Big footprint. Big hopes. Big claims about the future.”

“Oh yeah. You’re talking about that group Epic created to steal a move from Cerner.” he said.

“Um, sure. That must have been it,” I told him. “I’m sure that’s what I meant.”

—-

OK, I made most of this up. You’ve got me. But it is a pretty accurate representation of how most conversations go when I try to figure out who has a chance of actually making interoperability happen. (Of course, I added some snark for laughs, but not much, believe it or not.)

Does this exchange sound familiar to anyone else?

And if it does, is it any wonder we don’t have interoperability in healthcare?

Is Interoperability Worth Paying For?

Posted on August 18, 2016 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

A member of our extended family is a nurse practitioner. Recently, we talked about her practice providing care for several homebound, older patients. She tracks their health with her employer’s proprietary EHR, which she quickly compared to a half-dozen others she’s used. If you want a good, quick EHR eval, ask a nurse.

What concerned her most, beyond usability, etc., was piecing together their medical records. She didn’t have an interoperability problem, she had several of them. Most of her patients had moved from their old home to Florida leaving a mixed trail of practioners, hospitals, and clinics, etc. She has to plow through paper and electronic files to put together a working record. She worries about being blindsided by important omissions or doctors who hold onto records for fear of losing patients.

Interop Problems: Not Just Your Doc and Hospital

She is not alone. Our remarkably decentralized healthcare system generates these glitches, omissions, ironies and hang ups with amazing speed. However, when we talk about interoperability, we focus on mainly on hospital to hospital or PCP to PCP relations. Doing so, doesn’t fully cover the subject. For example, others who provide care include:

  • College Health Systems
  • Pharmacy and Lab Systems
  • Public Health Clinics
  • Travel and other Specialty Clinics
  • Urgent Care Clinics
  • Visiting Nurses
  • Walk in Clinics, etc., etc.

They may or may not pass their records back to a main provider, if there is one. When they do it’s usually by FAX making the recipient key in the data. None of this is particularly a new story. Indeed, the AHA did a study of interoperability that nails interoperability’s barriers:

Hospitals have tried to overcome interoperability barriers through the use of interfaces and HIEs but they are, at best, costly workarounds and, at worst, mechanisms that will never get the country to true interoperability. While standards are part of the solution, they are still not specified enough to make them truly work. Clearly, much work remains, including steps by the federal government to support advances in interoperability. Until that happens, patients across the country will be shortchanged from the benefits of truly connected care.

We’ve Tried Standards, We’ve Tried Matching, Now, Let’s Try Money

So, what do we do? Do we hope for some technical panacea that makes these problems seem like dial-up modems? Perhaps. We could also put our hopes in the industry suddenly adopting an interop standard. Again, Perhaps.

I think the answer lies not in technology or standards, but by paying for interop successes. For a long time, I’ve mulled over a conversation I had with Chandresh Shah at John’s first conference. I’d lamented to him that buying a Coke at a Las Vegas CVS, brought up my DC buying record. Why couldn’t we have EHR systems like that? Chandresh instantly answered that CVS had an economic incentive to follow me, but my medical records didn’t. He was right. There’s no money to follow, as it were.

That leads to this question, why not redirect some MU funds and pay for interoperability? Would providers make interop, that is data exchange, CCDs, etc., work if they were paid? For example, what if we paid them $50 for their first 500 transfers and $25 for their first 500 receptions? This, of course, would need rules. I’m well aware of the human ability to game just about anything from soda machines to state lotteries.

If pay incentives were tried, they’d have to start slowly and in several different settings, but start they should. Progress, such as it is, is far too slow and isn’t getting us much of anywhere. My nurse practitioner’s patients can’t wait forever.

ONC’s Budget: A Closer Look

Posted on August 3, 2016 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

When HHS released ONC’s proposed FY2017 budget last winter, almost all attention focused on one part, a $22 million increase for interoperability. While the increase is notable, I think ONC’s full $82 Million budget deserves some attention.

ONC’s FY2017 Spending Plan.

Table I, summarizes ONC’s plan for Fiscal Year 2017, which runs from October 1, 2016 through September 30, 2017. The first thing to note is that ONC’s funding would change from general budget funds, known as Budget Authority or BA, to Public Health Service Evaluation funds. HHS’ Secretary may allocate up to 2.1 percent of HHS’ funds to these PHS funds. This change would not alter Congress’ funding role, but apparently signals HHS’s desire to put ONC fully in the public health sector.

Table I
ONC FY2017 Budget

fy2017-budget-justification-onc

What the ONC Budget Shows and What it Doesn’t

ONC’s budget follows the standard, federal government budget presentation format. That is, it lists, by program, how many people and how much money is allocated. In this table, each fiscal year, beginning with FY2015, shows the staffing level and then spending.

Staffing is shown in FTEs, that is, full time equivalent positions. For example, if two persons work 20 hours each, then they are equivalent to one full time person or FTE.

Spending definitions for each fiscal year is a little different. Here’s how that works:

  • FY2015 – What actually was spent or how many actually were hired
  • FY2016 – The spending and hiring Congress set for ONC for the current year.
  • FY2017 – The spending and hiring in the President’s request to Congress for next year.

If you’re looking to see how well or how poorly ONC does its planning, you won’t see it here. As with other federal and most other government budgets, you never see a comparison of plans v how they really did. For example, FY2015 was the last complete fiscal year. ONC’s budget doesn’t have a column showing its FY2015 budget and next to it, what it actually did. If it did, you could see how well or how poorly it did following its plan.

You can’t see the amount budgeted for FY2015 in ONC’s budget, except for its total budget. However, if you look at the FY2016 ONC budget, you can see what was budgeted for each of its four programs. While the budget total and the corresponding actual are identical -$60,367,000, the story at the division level is quite different.

                                   Table II
                    ONC FY2015 Budget v Actual
                                    000s

Division

FY2015 Budget $ FY2015 Actuals $ Diff
Policy Development and Coordination 12,474 13,112 638
Standards, Interoperability, and Certification 15,230 15,425 195
Adoption and Meaningful Use 11,139 10,524 (615)
Agency-wide Support 21,524 21,306 (218)
Total 60,367 60,367

 

Table II, shows this by comparing the FY2015 Enacted Budget from ONC’s FY2015 Actuals for its four major activities. While the total remained the same, it shows that there was a major shift of $638,000 from Meaningful Use to Policy. There was a lesser shift of $195,000 from Agency Support to Standards. These shifts could have been actual transfers or they could have been from under and over spending by the divisions.

Interestingly, Table III for staffing shows a different pattern. During FY2015, ONC dropped 25 FTEs, a dozen from Policy Development and the rest from Standards and Meaningful Use. That means, for example, that Policy Development had less people and more money during FY2015.

Table III
ONC FY2015
Budget v Actual Staffing FTEs
Division FY2015 Budget FTEs FY2015 Actuals FTEs Diff
Policy Development and Coordination 49 37 (12)
Standards, Interoperability, and Certification 32 26 (6)
Adoption and Meaningful Use 49 42 (7)
Agency-wide Support 55 55
Total 185 160 25

 

To try to make sense of this, I looked at the current and past year’s budgets, but to no avail. As best I can tell is ONC made great use of contracts and other non personnel services. For example, ONC spent $30 Million on purchase/contracts, which is $8 million more than it did on its payroll.

ONC’s budget, understandably, concentrates on its programs and plans. It puts little emphasis on measuring its hiring and spending abilities. It’s not alone, budgets government and otherwise, are forecast and request documents. However, if we could know how plans went – without having to dig in last year’s weeds  – it would let us know how well a program executed its plans as well as make them. That would be something worth knowing.