News Releases

Murray, Cantwell Push for Health Information Technology to Help Rural Seniors

Aug 23 2010

Senators urge Medicare Administrator to fully include rural health clinics in electronic health records incentive program

(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) sent a letter to Donald Berwick, Administrator of Medicare and Medicaid Services at the Department of Health and Human Services, urging the department to allow eligible professionals practicing in independent rural health clinics to receive funding under the Medicare program for health information technology. Currently, eligible professionals in independent rural health clinics can qualify for incentive payments through Medicaid to invest in health information technology; however, they are currently excluded from receiving incentive payments through the Medicare program.

“We are concerned that this exclusion from Medicare incentive payments will limit the ability of rural providers who care for elderly patients to purchase health information technology. We are worried how this will affect rural patients’ access to electronic health records and their corresponding improvements to the delivery of health care. There is an increasing shortage of rural physicians. Failure to fix this exclusion in the regulations may hasten that rural shortage,” the Senators wrote.

The full text of the letter appears below:

Donald Berwick, MD, Administrator
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services
Department of Health and Human Services
200 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20201 

Dear Dr. Berwick:

We are writing in response to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service’s Medicare Electronic Health Record Incentive Program Final Rule, which was published in the Federal Register on July 28th, 2010 that excludes eligible professionals practicing in independent rural health clinics from the Medicare incentive program.

As you know, health information technology has the potential to improve the quality, safety, and effectiveness of health care.  A nationwide health information technology system will give doctors more information to make better-informed decisions and coordinate care.  Increased use of electronic health records could save our health care system billions by cutting waste and eliminating the need to repeat medical tests.  In addition, this technology has the potential to save lives by reducing medical errors. 

We were proud to support the $19 billion included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for health information technology.  This program was the largest-ever federal investment in adopting widespread use of electronic health records.  A majority of this funding will be available to eligible professionals through Medicaid and Medicare incentive payments.

While we understand and appreciate that eligible professionals practicing in rural health clinics can qualify for these incentive payments through the Medicaid program, we are troubled that eligible professionals in independent (that is, not provider based) rural health clinics are currently excluded from incentive payments through the Medicare program. 

We are concerned that this exclusion from Medicare incentive payments will limit the ability of rural providers who care for elderly patients to purchase health information technology.    We are worried how this will affect rural patients’ access to electronic health records and their corresponding improvements to the delivery of health care.   There is an increasing shortage of rural physicians.  Failure to fix this exclusion in the regulations may hasten that rural shortage.

As Senators from a large, rural state, one of our goals is to improve health care in rural communities by both expanding access and improving the quality of care.  Health information technology has the potential to further these goals and rural areas should not be excluded from the benefits this technology can provide. 

We do not believe it was Congress’ intent to exclude physicians in independent rural health clinics from the Medicare incentive program. 

We encourage you to investigate if there is a regulatory solution to this exclusion, possibly through the Office of the General Counsel, to allow independent rural health clinics to access health information technology incentive payments through the Medicare program.

Please inform us when you believe this issue might be resolved.