AMA: EHRs create ‘appalling Catch-22’

Association cites negative impact EHRs have on docs

By Tom Sullivan for HealthcareITNews

As the healthcare industry moves to EHRs, the medical record has essentially been reduced to a tool for billing, compliance and litigation that also has a sustained negative impact on doctors’ productivity, according to Steven J. Stack, MD, chair of the American Medical Association’s board of trustees.
“Documenting a full clinical encounter in an EHR is pure torment,” Stack said during the CMS Listening Session: Billing and Coding with Electronic Health Records on Friday.

EHRs are also driving the industry toward charts that look remarkably similar because they’re based on templates created by the technology vendors — that includes often using the same words. And that threatens to make doctors appear to be committing fraud by the practice of record cloning, or cutting and pasting from one record to another, when they are not, in fact, acting fraudulently. Alongside the federal mandate to implement an EHR under threat of a monetary fine, that creates what Stack called “an appalling Catch-22 for physicians.”

Put another way: The government mandates that doctors use an EHR, the EHR vendors’ templates can sometimes create an appearance of fraud and that, in turn, opens the door for payers to decline reimbursement or, even worse, the government to prosecute doctors for the crime.

As dire as that sounds, it’s an exception that belies the unproven perception that EHRs perpetuate fraud. “Upcoding does not necessarily equate to fraud and abuse,” said Sue Bowman, AHIMA’s senior director of coding and compliance at the same event. “This is an area where more study is needed. We really need to know the causes. Further research is needed on the fraud risk of using EHRs.”

Indeed, Jacob Reider, MD, CMO of ONC, explained that the government and industry do not have good data right now proving whether or not EHRs trigger fraud and abuse.

“There is concern that some doctors are using the EHR to obtain payments to which they are not entitled,” said Mickey McGlynn of Siemens Medical Solutions and HIMSS EHR Association. “Any fraud is an important issue and we, as the vendor community, take that very seriously.”

AMA’s Stack offered a triptych of suggestions to CMS and ONC: address EHR usability concerns, provide guidance on EHR use for coding and billing, and make meaningful use stage 2 more flexible for providers.

“My purpose is not to denigrate EHRs,” Stack said, explaining that he believes CMS and ONC are genuinely trying to better the current situation.

There are efforts underway, within the government and industry, to more comprehensively understand the unintended consequences of EHR implementation.

McGlynn said that the EHR Association is working on a code of conduct for developers that it hopes to release before summer.

“CMS has a long history of coding trends,” said Jonathan Blum, deputy administrator of CMS. “So we are looking to see if there are differences between people using EHRs or not.”

Several speakers called on CMS to provide more guidance on coding and billing with EHRs.

“I would think some conversation around national guidelines would be helpful,” said Benjamin Chu, MD, chairman of the American Hospital Association, and president of Kaiser Permanente Southern California region.

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