Meaningful use, HIPAA 5010, ICD-10, David Blumenthal leaving ONCHIT … all these factors have created “uncertainty” in health I.T. going into biggest shindig of the year, observes H. Stephen Lieber, president and CEO of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society.  But they’ve also sparked unprecedented interest in the HIMSS conference, being held Feb. 20-24 in Orlando. During a Feb. 16 interview at HIMSS headquarters in Chicago, Lieber says there had been 1,900 new registrations in the previous 24 hours, pushing attendance above 30,000 for the first time—what’s more, “I think we’ll be well in excess of 30,000,” he predicts.

Every HIMSS seems to have a dominant theme. “Last year it was more about understanding meaningful use. This year, it’s more about the march toward meaningful use,” Lieber says. On Feb. 21, HIMSS will release data showing that about 25 percent of hospital CIOs believes they’ve achieved Stage 1 meaningful use, and another 20 percent say they are “easily within reach” of the goal. “The expectations of meaningful use and the stages and the certification process for products, that’s pretty well understood, and I would call that stable right now,” he says.

But if the HIMSS numbers are accurate, that leaves more than half of U.S. hospitals—not to mention untold physician practices—out of the EHR incentive loop, at least for now. That’s why HIMSS stacked the programming at this year’s conference with presentations by providers that are far along the MU path, Lieber says. But even facilities that seemingly have achieved Stage 1 meaningful are looking for MU answers, particularly with regards to the transition from Stage 1 to Stage 2.

“When you attest right now could have an impact on how long you have to get to Stage 2,” Lieber says. Organizations that attest to Stage 1 meaningful use in 2011 instead of 2012, for example, may have to move to Stage 2 more rapidly than if they wait to attest to the first stage. “I think some folks missed this nuance,” says Lieber, adding that HIMSS is working with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to clarify the point, which he sees as a relatively minor issue. “We look at this as clean-up.”

Lieber went on to say meaningful use in a sense has “sidelined” HIPAA 5010 and ICD-10, but he knows HIMSS members are hungry for more information about those huge mandates.  “Those that have the resources are moving ahead on all fronts at the same time,” he says. “The challenge … is in those places where access to capital is limited, and there are no reserves.”

Which brings him to another point: While much of the industry is churning forward with automation, inner-city, small and rural hospitals, as well as small physician practices, are struggling, which in his mind is why federal funding for health I.T.  adoption is so critical. But the HIT industry is being shaken by what Lieber calls “deficit-fear-driven efforts” of some of the new, ultra-conservative members of Congress to repeal much of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, including unspent money set aside for EHR incentives.

“There is going to be some uncertainty until we clear the presidential election two years from now,” he predicts. Still, he advises hospitals to keep moving forward on EHR and other I.T. implementations. “If you’re capable and able, keep moving ahead. Don’t wait,” he says. “There’s some degree of uncertainty, but at the practice level, at the implementation level, everybody should by this point have their I.T. strategic plan in mind. They should have their timetable. Don’t let external events move you off of what works for your institution.”

With the political environment very tense, Lieber does not believe Blumenthal or HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius—who will share the keynote stage the morning of Feb. 23—will make any major policy pronouncements at HIMSS. “This whole HIT area, which used to be very bipartisan, has become politicized,” Lieber says, noting that politicians are becoming more guarded about public statements. “I really think the focus of their keynote  is going to be much more about recognizing how far we’ve come, and I expect they’ll highlight their role in bringing us this far.”

Lieber also expects the departing Blumenthal to paint a rosy picture of the future of health I.T. and health care reform. “He’s got a lot to celebrate, and I think he’ll take the opportunity, along with Secretary Sebelius, to do that,” he says. “The offer of funding certainly has driven this industry to a very different place in a short period of time. Those would be the points I’d be making if I were in their roles.”

--Neil Versel

 

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