[Installment 5 – Governance Considerations from HIT for the Board and Other Hospital Stakeholders] 

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts that relate to the governance concerns surrounding developments in HIPAA, HITECH and HIT. 

The other week, two separate and apparently unrelated events occurred on consecutive days with respect to electronic health records (“EHRs”) that dramatically underscore the focus of this series. Governing Boards of hospitals and other stakeholders must place a very high priority in their struggle to cope with the new and somewhat uneven landscape of health information technology (“HIT”).

On July 16, 2009, Health Data Management reported that “[t]he federal HIT Policy Committee has approved revised recommendations of a workgroup for an initial definition of ‘meaningful use’ of electronic health records systems. The report goes on to emphasize that “[t]he definition is important because providers must demonstrate meaningful use of EHRs to qualify for Medicare and Medicaid incentive payments starting in 2011 under the economic stimulus law.”

Therefore, health providers will have to meet minimum prescribed standards for their EHRs if they are to benefit in the future from the federal economic stimulus package under the HITECH Act to recoup a portion of the heavy costs that they will incur to implement their EHRs programs. 

On the following day, July 17, 2009, the federal Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) published a press release on its Web site that it will temporarily halt 45 information technology projects which are either behind schedule or over budget. These projects will be reviewed by the VA, and it will be determined whether these projects should be continued. The release goes on to say that each of the 45 affected projects will be temporarily halted with no further development until a new project plan that meets the requirements of Program Management Accountability System is created.

Some of the titles of the VA projects that will be halted include significant EHRs-related projects such as “Health Data Repository II,” “Clinical Data Service,” “Home Telehealth Development,” “Occupational Health Record Keeping System,” “Lab Data Sharing & Interoperability – Anatomic Pathology/Microbiology” and many others.

By simply securing additional funding from Congress, the VA, as an agency of the federal government that is generally a favorite of the legislators, can retool and retrench its EHRs initiatives after making a relatively embarrassing press release and perhaps enduring some criticism and lost time. 

The Boards of health care providers do not have the luxuries of the VA. They simply cannot afford false starts and mistakes if they are to meet the meaningful use standards of the HITECH Act on a timely basis. As this blog has stated in earlier installments, the survival of many hospitals is threatened by the uncertainties of possible health care reform, declining patient population, reduced reimbursement, heavy regulation, intense competition, dwindling donor contributions and heavy endowment losses for non-profit hospitals, a history of unclear returns from past substantial investments in HIT and many other factors. The costs of mistakes for the private sector hospitals are not simply the embarrassment or lost time of the VA. They are the huge outlays for conversion to EHRs and the potential for losing access to the federal stimulus funds.

These questions and others must be properly considered at a high level in the hospital, with committed Board oversight, in order to avoid or mitigate liability and loss that will result from expensive choices made with inadequate or incomplete information. 

 [To be continued in Installment 6]