January 29, 2016
Area(s) of Interest: Electronic Health Records Health Information Technology Practice Management
In mid-December, Congress adopted a last-minute bill that gives CMS the authority to grant a blanket exemption for all eligible physicians who apply for the exemption from the 2015 meaningful use penalties. This action prevents the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) from implementing Medicare payment penalties for physicians who fail to demonstrate meaningful use of a certified electronic health record (EHR) system in 2015.
New rules released last year state that eligible professionals must attest that they met the requirements for stage 2 meaningful use for a period of 90 consecutive days during calendar year 2015. However, CMS did not publish the updated regulations for stage 2 meaningful use until October 16, 2015. As a result, eligible professionals were not able to report until fewer than the 90 required days remained in the calendar year.
CMS had previously stated that it would grant hardship exemptions for 2015 if providers were unable to attest due to the late publishing of the rule, but law at that time only authorized it to grant such exemptions on a case-by-case basis. This new law grants CMS the authority to make an automatic exemption IF it receives a hardship exemption application. It also streamlines the exemption process, alleviating burdensome administrative issues for both physicians and the agency.
Under the new law, physicians are still required to file for a hardship exemption to avoid a payment adjustment for 2015 no later than March 15, 2016.
Physicians are urged to preemptively file for a 2015 hardship exception to avoid penalties in 2017. Physicians are encouraged to apply even if they are uncertain whether they will meet the program requirements this year. CMS has stated that it will broadly accept hardship exemptions because of the delayed publication of the program regulations. Applying for the hardship will not prevent a physician from earning an incentive; it simply protects a physician from receiving a meaningful use penalty. Therefore, physicians who believe that they met the meaningful use requirements for the 2015 reporting period should still apply for the hardship protection. Note that the program operates on a two-year look-back period, meaning that physicians who are granted an exception for the 2015 program will avoid a financial penalty for 2017.
The application is available on the CMS website and can be downloaded by clicking here. Physicians are encouraged to apply for a hardship under the “EHR Certification/Vendor Issues (CEHRT Issues)” category (option 2.2.d in the application). The American Medical Association (AMA) has published a fact sheet that includes step-by-step instructions on how to apply for the hardship exemption.
The deadlines for submitting applications for hardship exceptions are:
- Eligible physicians: March 15, 2016
- Eligible hospitals: April 1, 2016
CMA and AMA worked frantically the last few weeks of 2015 to get the bill passed authorizing this blanket exemption. CMA extends a huge thank you to Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for agreeing to keep the House in session and pass the bill on unanimous consent.
For more information on the EHR incentive program, see the CMS tipsheet, "EHR Incentive Programs for Eligible Professionals: What You Need to Know for 2015."