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GOP senators call for overhaul of electronic health records program

Lawmakers say Obama's $35 billion initiative pushing health information technology isn't working

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Health care providers are switching from print to electronic health records.

Emma Schwartz/iWatch News

Six U.S. Senators are calling for an overhaul of the federal government’s $35 billion plan for doctors and hospitals to switch from paper to electronic medical records, citing concerns from patient privacy to possible Medicare billing fraud.

The report issued Tuesday by the half-dozen Republicans concedes that many lawmakers and medical experts believe the digital systems can reduce health care costs and improve the quality of care by reducing duplicative testing and cutting down on medical errors.

But the report asserts that the Obama administration’s push to use billions of dollars in stimulus money helping doctors and hospitals buy digital systems needs to be “recalibrated.”

“Now, nearly four years after the enactment…and after hundreds of pages of regulations implementing the program,” the document says, “we see evidence that the program is at risk of not achieving its goals and that $35 billion in taxpayer money is being spent ineffectively in the process.”

Among the report’s conclusions:

  • Despite expectations of cost savings, the digital systems may be increasing unnecessary medical tests and billings to Medicare.
  • The government has not demanded that the various digital systems be able to share medical information, a critical element to their success.
  • Few controls exist to prevent fraud and abuse. Many doctors and hospitals are receiving money by simply attesting that they are meeting required standards.
  • Procedures to protect the privacy of patient records are lax and may jeopardize sensitive patient data.”
  • It remains unclear whether doctors and hospitals that have accepted stimulus funding will be able to maintain the systems without government money.

Some of the concerns cited were detailed by the Center for Public Integrity’s “Cracking the Codes”  series last year. The year-long investigation found that thousands of medical professionals have steadily billed higher rates for treating seniors on Medicare over the last decade — adding $11 billion or more to their fees.

The Center’s probe uncovered a broad range of costly billing errors and abuses that have plagued Medicare for years—from confusion over how to pick proper payment codes to outright overcharges. The findings indicated that Medicare billing problems are worsening as doctors and hospitals switch to electronic health records.

Addressing the coding abuses the senators wrote: “However, early reports raise concerns that health IT may have actually accelerated the ordering of unnecessary care as well as increased billing for the same procedures.”

The administration’s Office of National Coordinator, which oversees the program, referred a request for comment on the report to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. A CMS official did not respond to written questions.

It’s unclear what steps administration officials are taking to combat fraud and abuse from errant billing, a process known as “upcoding.”

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Attorney General Eric Holder last September notified five medical groups of their intention to ramp up investigative oversight of upcoding, including possible criminal prosecutions, but it is not clear if any follow-up actions are underway.

In addition, the Centers for Medicare and Medicare Services on May 3 is holding a summit in Baltimore to discuss electronic records systems,   “the increase in code levels billed for some Medicare services, and appropriate coding in an increasingly electronic environment.”

The Congressional report,  titled “REBOOT: Re-examining the Strategies Needed to Successfully Adopt Health IT” was released on Tuesday by Senators John Thune (R-S.D.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).