Montana Could Snub IT Funds

Republican lawmakers in Big Sky country are giving a big no to $35 million in federal incentive payments for hospital electronic health records -- a move Montana's governor warns would cost more than 500 jobs statewide.

A spending bill approved earlier this month by the Montana House would reject the EHR meaningful-use money, along with $131 million in federal funding for the state's Department of Public Health and Human Services. Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer says all 47 of the state's critical access hospitals likely would qualify for the EHR funding, because most serve rural populations with limited access to health-care resources.

"The legislature has stalled and delayed and now, even if they decided to give the department authority, we are not sure the money will be available," Schweitzer said in a news release issued on Wednesday.

GOP lawmakers say they're making a statement about out-of-control federal deficit spending.

"Every one of those federal dollars that we spend, a taxpayer somewhere has to come up with," says Republican Rep. John Esp of Big Timber, according to the Billings Gazette. "A drop in the bucket in the right direction is a drop in the bucket in the right direction."

The state Senate has not yet weighed in on the budget spending plan. A Senate committee was discussing the proposed DPHHS cuts at a Friday hearing, according to the governor's office. It was unclear from news reports whether the EHR funding also was on the agenda.

"If Montana rejects the money, it will be distributed to other states, and Montana providers would be left holding the bag, requiring them to use their own funds for the technology or be left behind," Schweitzer said. "This harms patients and drives up costs."

Nationwide, 81 percent of hospitals plan to apply for federal meaningful-use payments, according to a report released in January by the Health and Human Services Department's Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT. Nearly two-thirds say they intend to apply for money this year and next, in the first stage of the program.

Hospitals potentially can recoup millions of dollars from the Medicaid and Medicare incentive payments.