HHS opens registration for e-health records incentive program

Doctors will be able to earn tens of thousands of dollars by making meaningful use of computer files.

Registration began Monday for health care professionals and hospitals to participate in the Health and Human Services Department's Medicare and Medicaid electronic-health records incentive programs.

Doctors who adopt, implement, upgrade or demonstrate meaningful use of certified electronic health records will be eligible for Medicaid payments of up to $63,750 over six years, and Medicare bonuses of as much as $44,000 over five years. For hospitals, the incentives start at a $2 million base payment for both Medicaid and Medicare. The money comes from the 2009 economic stimulus package.

For Medicare, doctors must begin the transition by 2012 to receive the maximum benefit; those who provide services in an area with a shortage of health care professionals will qualify for additional payments. Medicare eligible professionals who do not demonstrate meaningful use by 2015 will be penalized starting at 1 percent of reimbursements and increasing each year to a maximum of 5 percent.

There are no penalties associated with the Medicaid incentive program and the program varies by state.

Meeting meaningful use criteria is all about engaging patients and families, said Dr. Farzad Mostashari, deputy national coordinator for programs and policy in HHS' Office of the National Coordinator of Health IT, during a September 2010 panel discussion the Government Executive Media Group sponsored. For example, doctors can use electronic records to look up and remind patients what other health professionals have told them.

The fact that registration began Monday is "really exciting," said Dr. Michael Tremblay, owner of Tremblay Consulting, a London-based international health policy consultancy. Registration "gets people going. Now things matter."

The program should be effective at enticing providers to adopt electronic records, according to Tremblay. "I think the government could have taken a strong-armed approach," he said, but "they've taken an incentive approach . . . I think [the incentives] are enough; it's a substantial amount, but about the right amount."