Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS)
August 2008 News
Innocent Caught in Dragnet
With a 19.7% increase in budget, and a 64-person increase in staff to a total of 1,495, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) is aggressively looking for fraud. The anti-fraud cash cow brings in $20 for $1 spent. To "find" fraud, the government gets creative, elevating ordinary billing disputes to fraud.
"The government overkills. It ruins their life. Doctors lose their career. They overbill Medicare, and it may have been sloppy," states attorney Patric Hooper. "But rather than pay back $100,000, they owe millions" (MCA 6/30/08).
One Pinellas County, Fla., physician was hauled off in handcuffs because of an ongoing dispute with UnitedHealth Care over E&M coding. What preceded the indictment was a refusal by the physician to use [healthcare IT] products sold by Ingenix, a United subsidiary. "It's clear from the documents that United filed the claim in retaliation," said the doctor's attorney. "I've never before encountered such a blatant attempt at coercion by a payer public or private" (ibid.).
Note that electronic medical record software, such as Amazing Charts, could make you liable for false claims, as through unintentional misuse of cut-and-paste functions or templates that automatically fill in blanks (ibid.).
Enforcement is being enhanced through use of anti-fraud "strike forces." The investigators are often retired policemen, and they do not treat physicians as "white collar" (MCA 6/30/08).
Some suggestions from Medicare Compliance Alert: Guard your NPI. Screen staff carefully, and watch out for "rogue employees" who might be identity thieves. Report business partners to the government; it can protect your own business. Have procedures in place to deal with search warrants. Be sure the information on your Medicare enrollment form is accurate; wrong information from a form filled in 20 years ago could result in a false claim (ibid.).
AAPS advice: consider opting out.
I believe a much more aggressive response is needed from the medical profession, including organized medicine, besides "opting out" of abusive third party payer arrangements.
In a former role of Manager of Medical Programs for a regional transit authority, I've seen labor unions that were representing bus drivers and janitors act far more aggressively and wisely in representing their members against management whims than organized medicine represents physicians against payer and government whims.
If organized medicine were performing its role in representing the profession aggressively, considering the evidence that paper charts can perform as well as electronic records in many circumstances and that most clinical IT benefits accrue to payers and other third parties, then major concessions would have been demanded of the primary beneficiaries for physicians to adopt electronic medical records.
"Musn't be too aggressive or appear disgruntled" is one of the reasons I've heard from academic colleagues that this does not occur. Physicians must be "gentlemen" and "team players." ("Team player" in today's context often means "co-conspirator to mediocrity" or to even worse).
I ask "why?" [should physicians avoid appearing angry]. The directness and actual aggressiveness of the labor union representatives I saw in action was quite effective in improving the conditions for their members. Interestingly, the union people were aggressive when "in role" yet polite when I encountered them in other settings, such as the daily commute to work. The public would likely respond to legions of angry doctors like few other means of communication could muster.
In a similar vein, I have heard from numerous circles that it's best to advocate for informatics leadership of Health IT (such as EMR, CPOE etc.) without demonstrating emotion or 'disgruntledness.' That raises several questions:
- Are physicians finding themselves marginalized and at the whim of IT managers, payers and other non clinical third parties because they have been just too angry and aggressive in demanding what was best for medicine and for themselves?
- Has there ever been any disagreement or conflict of such major proportions (and profitability) as healthcare that has been resolved purely through gentleman's dialog?
- Finally, are there lessons to be learned from these gentlemen who "petitioned for redress of grievances in the most humble of terms", only to be answered by even worse treatment?
On leadership of Health IT efforts: the sudden push by government towards universal HIT in recent years has often puzzled me. HIT rapidly moved from "experimental" status to godsend and panacea, although ample evidence was available that this was not the case. Enterprise EHR's seem to cost as much as entire new hospital wings. Yet ONC, AHRQ and other agencies seemed to start operating from the panacea assumption, largely since the internet hype that began at the end of the last decade.
The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) was established in 2004 to promote electronic health records in the United States. Regarding ONC, I've recently had some conversation with persons instrumental in the evolution of VistA, the Veteran Administration's EHR, and listened to presentations on VistA at a number of conferences.
It seems VistA is a very different universe from commercial HIT, one of strong collaboration and pride and creativity. This is likely due to its unique and relatively constrained purpose (care of veterans and family) and the non-profit nature of its history. You can get a good sense of this from the new book "Medical Informatics 20/20: Quality and Electronic Health Records through Collaboration, Open Solutions, and Innovation" (Amazon link here) written by key VistA personnel from that perspective. (Note: I use the book for teaching graduate students about the best ways to create and implement HIT and am cited in it for my views on social issues in HIT as at my website).
Commercial HIT is, on the other hand, highly corporatized, in the worst 2008 sense of the word. It is a highly competitive (need I say cutthroat) business, highly fragmented, proprietary, and anything but open. Commerical HIT is characterized by many stakeholders with widely varying agendas, forming an often dysfunctional "HIT ecosystem" (link) that largely excludes clinicians from meaningful decision making. The ecosystem is primarily centered on profit. It is an entirely different world than VistA.
In addition, hospital IS departments are usually woefully unprepared and incapable of meeting the challenges of clinical IT. IT is not a hospital core competence. Quite frankly, many of the IT leaders I've met in hospitals have been barely competent and in some cases downright abysmal where the needs and culture of practicing clinicians -- and sick patients -- are involved.
Physicians have been "resisting" health IT for 30+ years now. The diffusion of healthcare information technology after 30-plus years of effort and billions of dollars spent remains limited. As per the 2008 statistics in the NEJM article "Electronic Health Records in Ambulatory Care - A National Survey of Physicians", NEJM 359:50-60, just four percent of physicians in the
Yet those same physicians have to be restrained from using new therapeutic modalities and drugs where the benefit to patients is reasonably clear cut, even procedures and devices that are complex to perform or utilize.
Perhaps our society should take the 'resistance' to clinical IT as a phenomenon for serious consideration. One should perhaps ask themselves if they'd happily volunteer to receive a new therapy or drug that physicians have been 'resisting' for several decades.
Clinical IT is a world further characterized by issues such as these (thanks to Al Borges, MD and Health IT discussion site EMRUpdate.com for some of these links):
- "Oh no! Half of all current EMRs fail!", from 1/2007 Technology for Doctors (link to PDF)
- "Avoiding EMR meltdown: How to get your money's worth. About a third of practices that buy electronic medical records systems stop using them within a year. A little homework can help ensure you buy one that will work for you.", from 12/2006 AMNews (link)
- Quote: "The failure rates of EMR implementations are also consistently high at close to 50%", from Proceedings of the 11th International Symposium on Health Information Management Research – iSHIMR 2006 (link to PDF)
- Quote: "Industry experts estimate that failure rates of Electronic Medical Record (EMR) implementations range from 50–80%.", from 7/2006 A Commonsense Approach to EMRs (link to PDF)
- Kaiser Permanante HIT Meltdown (link)
- UK: Milton Keyne's Care Records System caused 'near meltdown' (link)
and many others of a similar nature.
This raises several questions:
- ONC was founded by our government. Where, exactly, was the government receiving its inputs on HIT pros and cons, drawbacks and challenges? The drawbacks have been known for a long time. Was the primary source of information from the pro-HIT optimists, opportunists and Pollyannas (per my HIT Ecosystem essay), lobbyists, and those whose experiences were largely positive in development of non commercial, large scale HIT (e.g., VA?) Could a term to describe what the administration has been told by the "HIT Ecosystem" members be this word?
- Was ONC founded on the premise that the commercial HIT 'ecosystem' operates like the VA, i.e., a world of collaboration and creativity? Could it be seeing commercial HIT through 'rose-colored glasses?'
- ONC seems to have focused on "technical" issues - standards, interoperability, etc. - at the expense of the social impediments and drawbacks to HIT. It seems the working assumption is that all that stands in the way of universal HIT, much like in the VA, is fine details of the technology and 'physician resistance.' Is ONC positioned to understand the commercial HIT sector and its issues, and in fact produce a candid and realistic "lessons learned" report as being called for in proposed House Energy and Commerce legislation?
These are very important questions. I do not know the answers. However, the decision makers in our government should ensure that they do.