EHR incentives, Stark and SGR alternatives getting Congressional attention

The Congressional Affairs Panel, held Monday at the 2013 HIMSS Annual Conference and Exhibition, featured health policy experts and congressional staff members who engaged in a discussion of current national and state legislation affecting healthcare and health IT.

With more than $12 billion already committed to provider and hospital payments under the Medicare and Medicaid EHR Incentive Programs, there is broad expectation that key Senate and House committees with jurisdiction over health matters will ramp up their attention toward and oversight of the programs' implementation.

Panelists agreed that bipartisan support remains strong for HITECH Act implementation. The program, however, has become so large and so visible that elected officials on both sides of the aisle are starting to question whether the incentives are delivering positive results.

At the same time, the trigger was pulled March 1 on budget-cutting sequestration measures. Joel White, who served as health director on the Health Subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee, noted that the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT is expected to suffer a $1 million budget cut as a result of sequestration, while the Office for Civil Rights will lose about $2 million from its budget.

White made another prediction about imminent action from Congress that would impact the healthcare community. He forecasted that the Department of Health & Human Services "is going to release rules extending Stark anti-kickback safe harbors here at [HIMSS13]…It's an important issue because with those rules you can push out some standards to business practices and interoperability requirements that [will] help you on the political front with Congress in their oversight of budget votes.”

Charlene MacDonald, a senior policy advisor and legislative director to Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), said Schwartz, an influential voice on national health policy, is working on legislation that would address the nation's physician shortfall, as well as proposed alternatives to the Sustainable Growth Formula used to establish physicians' payments under Medicare. She said Rep. Joe Heck, DO, (R-Nevada) introduced the SGR-alternative legislation, the Medicare Physician Payment Innovation Act, on Feb. 6.