Congress includes eRx in Medicare bill

Finally Congress has paid more than lip service to health IT. Late yesterday afternoon, the Senate approved the Medicare Improvements for Patients and Providers Act of 2008, halting the planned 10.6 percent physician fee rollback and, significantly, including financial incentives for physicians to move to electronic prescribing.

Reportedly, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a strong advocate of health IT, surprised a lot of his colleagues by returning to the Senate in time for the vote, his first appearance there since his cancer surgery last month.

According to the eHealth Initiative, calls for bonuses of up to 2 percent for providers who use “qualified” e-prescribing systems for five years, beginning in 2009. Starting in 2012, providers would be subject to 2 percent penalties for not writing electronic scripts. The Department of Health and Human Services would have the option of adding a hardship exemption for certain providers.

This is not a done deal, however, as President Bush has threatened to veto the legislation over its proposed Medicare Advantage cuts. The bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent, but the eHealth Initiative says 69 senators voted in favor, making the margin veto-proof. The House vote on June 24 was 355-59, also enough to override a veto.