First, do no harm.
Four simple words that are synonymous with healthcare. It’s a principle that everyone in the industry – not just physicians – should adhere to.
So shame on us all for our part in allowing an EHR vendor to shut off a practice’s access to their patients’ medical records and for recklessly putting patients at risk.
Background: Full Circle Health Care in Maine purchased an EHR from HealthPort in 2010. Originally the maintenance fees were $300 a month. A few months later CompuGroup Medical purchased HealthPort and increased the maintenance fees to $2,000 a month. The practice protested the price increase and claimed CompuGroup failed to deliver hardware upgrades that had been paid for. The parties spent several months arguing and for 10 months the practice did not pay its maintenance bills. Finally in July, CompuGroup shut off the practice’s access to its medical records.
The details as to why the fees jumped so much and whether CompuGroup had the legal right to do so are a little unclear. What is clear is that multiple parties are at fault for allowing such a mess to occur.
Let’s start with the government, which created the HITECH program and promised thousands of dollars for providers willing to adopt and meaningfully use EHRs. Though the objectives were admirable, CMS failed to adequately address all the “what if” scenarios in its rush to move the program forward. The legislation and final rule provide no guidelines for protecting patient records in the event of a vendor/provider disagreement, financial hardship, or business discontinuance. Undoubtedly we’ll see plenty more disputes like this one in the coming years.
The practice also gets a share of the blame. The owner should have invested in legal advice before signing a $72,000 contract for something as critical as an EHR system. Did she skip this step in her haste to achieve Meaningful Use and earn incentive payments? Furthermore, even if she disputed the increase in maintenance pricing, shouldn’t she, at a minimum, have continued paying the $400 a month fee she believed was the correct amount? Perhaps the vendor would have been more willing to come to an acceptable agreement if she hadn’t stopped paying altogether.
CompuGroup, of course, looks like the really bad guy here. The multi-national company has annual revenues of about $600 million. Did they really need to pull the plug on this practice over a piddling $40,000? The company’s general counsel says the situation is similar to an electric company shutting off power when a customer fails to pay. Perhaps, but many municipalities and some states have laws that prohibit the discontinuance of services under certain conditions, such as in extreme cold weather or when a child or sick person is in residence. In other words, there are laws to protect consumers against potentially harmful actions. (See: EHRs And The Law: When Interoperability Isn’t a Choice)
Which brings us to the seemingly forgotten patient, who arguably is – or should be – the owner of his or her own record. We do have federal and state laws that give patients the right to access and inspect their medical records. Perhaps the practice’s 4,000 patients should all send CompuGroup a written request for a copy of their records. Maybe an attorney who is smarter than me should look into that.
Until the mess is settled, we have a practice seeing patients without the benefit of medication and allergy lists, details on previous treatments, or lab and test results. And everyone involved is hoping that no patients are harmed.
Whether our role in healthcare is policy maker, technology developer, provider, or HIT geek, we really need to do better.
Michelle Ronan Noteboom
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