Congressman calls on OIG to extend EHR donation protections

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), concerned about the looming expiration of the "safe harbor" protection allowing hospitals and others to subsidize electronic health record system purchases by and for physicians, has asked the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services' Office of Inspector General to consider extending the protection beyond Dec. 31, 2013, when it's slated to sunset.

McDermott, the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee, noted in a March 28 letter to OIG chief counsel Gregory Demske that the safe harbor is a "common sense policy" and urged him to consider an extension. McDermott also noted that he was certain that OIG would make "necessary adjustments" to the safe harbor based on what it has learned thus far, and recommended that any extension also include a new sunset date.

OIG created the safe harbor provisions in 2006 to encourage more physicians to transition to EHRs. The subsidies, also called donation programs, can be up to 85 percent of the cost of the EHR's software, training and upgrades. The software must meet certain criteria, such as interoperability and electronic prescribing capability. Donations meeting the safe harbor won't run afoul of the fraud and abuse laws.

OIG itself recently raised the possibility that it may extend the EHR donation "safe harbor" protection. Vicki Robinson, Senior Counsel for Policy at OIG, speaking at the American Bar Association's Annual Emerging Issues Conference in Miami Feb. 22, acknowledged that "we are looking at it" and "we are very aware of [its expiration]."

Ironically, McDermott is from the same state whose attorney general recently ruled that such programs violate state law.

To learn more:
- read the letter (.pdf)