Jasmine Norwood/ iWatch News
Reading Time: 3 minutes

In early 2009, federal officials announced they would pay billions of dollars to hospitals and doctors who agreed to buy electronic medical records and use them to improve the quality of health care.

But the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has since paid out more than $3.6 billion to medical professionals who made the switch without verifying they are meeting the required quality goals, according to a new federal audit to be released today.

The Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General’s audit warns that the electronic records program is “vulnerable” to abuse and that officials should immediately “strengthen” oversight to protect tax dollars from being wasted.

Many experts believe electronic health records hold great potential to keep people healthier. To achieve that goal, government officials insisted that doctors and hospitals receiving payments meet a lengthy checklist of quality standards, ranging from writing prescriptions electronically to recording immunization and smoking histories.

Yet it’s not clear if that’s happening because nobody checks to make sure. In a response included in the audit report, CMS Acting Administrator Marilyn Tavenner said that requiring medical professionals to prove they are meeting the quality requirements prior to cutting them a check would be burdensome and “significantly delay payments.”

Tavenner said that the agency plans to conduct some audits in the future and would then take steps to recover any improper payments. But the Inspector General opined that CMS should verify compliance first to avoid having to track down miscreants later, a much maligned practice sometimes referred to as “pay and chase.”

A CMS spokesman declined to address the audit findings directly, but said: “Protecting taxpayer dollars is our top priority and we have implemented aggressive procedures to hold providers accountable.”

The shift from paper to digital medical records has enjoyed strong political support in Congress, though how best to pay for it—and who deserves the money— has been controversial. Funds for the conversion are part of the nearly $800 billion economic stimulus package passed by Congress in February 2009.

Last year, the Center for Public Integrity reported that about half the first batch of federal dollars went to providers who had converted to the technology long before the stimulus program was announced. A spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., called that an “inexcusable waste of taxpayer dollars,” saying it “makes no sense” for the government to “pay physicians for systems they already have.”

Criticism from Republicans in Congress has mounted in the wake of the Center’s “Cracking the Codes” series published in September. The investigative project documented that thousands of medical professionals have steadily billed Medicare for more complex and costly health care over the past decade — adding $11 billion or more to their fees—and strongly suggested that the rapid growth in the use of electronic health records and billing software has contributed to the higher charges.

In an Oct. 4 letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebilius, four Republican House leaders asked federal officials to suspend the payments, arguing the program may be wasting billions of tax dollars and doing little to improve the quality of medical care.

The four members wrote that the program has failed to ensure digital systems can share medical information, a key goal. Linking health systems by computer is expected to help doctors do a better job treating the sick by avoiding costly waste, medical errors and duplication of tests.

From May 2011 to August of this year, Medicare paid about $3.6 billion to 74,317 medical providers and 1,333 hospitals that made the switch to electronic records. Doctors can receive as much as $44,000 each, while hospitals get a minimum of $2 million. Costs are expected to rise to $6.6 billion over the next four years.

According to the Inspector General’s audit, CMS lacks the tools to check whether many of the medical quality measures are being met. For instance, auditors said that CMS had no way to know whether doctors and hospitals were writing the required numbers of prescriptions electronically.

“CMS does not verify the accuracy of professionals’ and hospitals’ self-reported information prior to payment because data necessary for verifications are not readily available,” auditors wrote.

The Inspector General also noted that some of the problem may stem from software systems that can’t produce accurate quality assessments.

The report cited as an example a “report to customers” issued in February by GE Healthcare, a manufacturer of digital records systems. The notice said that two of its products could produce “inaccurate” quality reports and that it had notified CMS and its customers, and was working to correct the problem.

The new report said the Inspector General has audits underway to find out if some medical providers have been gaming the system. It did not say when those audits would be completed.

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