Free EHR software is on hold

Physician Focused Quality Initiative, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services

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The release of free electronic health record (EHR) software that physicians could download from the Department of Health and Human Services has been delayed indefinitely, a department official said yesterday.

Dr. Karen Bell, division director of the Quality Improvement Group at HHS’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told a conference audience that VistA-Office “is undergoing a review right now by the secretary’s office.… You can’t download anything” now.

VistA-Office, based on the EHR system that the Department of Veterans Affairs developed for use in VA hospitals and clinics, was supposed to be released in July and then in August.

Bell declined to speculate on what HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt would decide about releasing VistA-Office.

But she said that no physician has ever downloaded, installed and used the complete software suite in its current form. She said pilot tests would normally be used to ensure that a software package works before it is released to the public.

EHR software for doctors’ offices usually costs at least $10,000. Physicians, especially those in small practices, regard the high cost as a major barrier to widespread adoption of health information technology. The offer of free software from the government was intended to encourage use of EHRs.

Although doctors will not have to pay to download VistA-Office when it becomes available, few doctors have the technical expertise and time to install the system and get it running. Most users are likely to hire consultants to help with the installation, officials have said, so they will incur some costs.

Bell also said that CMS will develop online training courses and lessons learned presentations to help physicians increase the quality of care they provide. The resources, part of the Doctors’ Office Quality program, will be labeled DOQ-U, she said.

Bell spoke at the Health IT Summit sponsored by the eHealth Initiative in Washington, D.C.

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