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Report questions digital medical records

  |   Nov. 29, 2012 at 3:41 PM
WASHINGTON, Nov. 29 (UPI) -- Federal investigators are questioning whether money allocated to digitize Americans' medical records is being spent properly.

A sharply critical report released Thursday by the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services says the dispersal of $7 billion set aside in Medicare to serve as an incentive to individual doctors and hospitals to convert paper records to digital isn't being properly vetted, The New York Times said. In some cases, the new digital records systems may be resulting in doctors -- who the federal government paid to convert to computerized records -- billing Medicare at a higher rate than before they switched.

Those doctors and hospitals opting to convert to digital records must demonstrate how it will improve patient care to get the money -- such as using the digital records to cross-reference a patient's prescriptions and avoid potentially harmful combinations. The inspector general's report questions whether this is actually happening and said Medicare's lax oversight of the program can't guarantee those who have gotten the money -- about $3.6 billion has been spent so far -- ever showed how it would improve the standard of care.

Proponents argue the obvious benefits of digitizing the nation's medical records outweighs problems in Medicare's administration of the program, but acknowledge better execution would help avoid fraud. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the department is investigating whether any Medicare fraud has come about due specifically to new digital record-keeping.

One digital records advocate likened the situation to the advent of automobiles.

"We've gone from the horse and buggy to the Model T, and we don't know the rules of the road. Now we've had a big car pileup," said Lynne Thomas Gordon, the chief executive of the American Health Information Management Association, a trade group in Chicago.

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