At the time, as it has been since then, NextGen’s software was certified by the government as meeting the requirements of the stimulus program. By 2016, NextGen had more than 19,000 customers who had received federal subsidies.
NextGen was subpoenaed by the Department of Justice in December 2017, months after becoming the subject of a federal investigation led by the District of Vermont. Frantz tells KHN and Fortune that NextGen is cooperating with the investigation. “This company was not dishonest, but it was not effective four years ago,” he said. Frantz also emphasized that NextGen has “rapidly evolved” during his tenure, earning five industry awards since 2017, and that customers have “responded very positively.”
Glen Tullman, who until 2012 led Allscripts, another leading EHR vendor that benefited royally from the stimulus and that has been sued by numerous unhappy customers, admitted that the industry’s race to market took priority over all else.
“It was a big distraction. That was an unintended consequence of that,” Tullman said. “All the companies were saying, This is a one-time opportunity to expand our share, focus everything there, and then we’ll go back and fix it.” The Justice Department has opened a civil investigation into the company, Securities and Exchange Commission filings show. Allscripts said in an email that it cannot comment on an ongoing investigation, but that the civil investigations by the Department of Justice relate to businesses it acquired after the investigations were opened.
Much of the marketing mayhem occurred because federal officials imposed few controls over firms scrambling to cash in on the stimulus. It was a gold rush — and any system, it seemed, could be marketed as “federally approved.” Doctors could shop for bargain-price software packages at Costco and Walmart’s Sam’s Club — where eClinicalWorks sold a “turnkey” system for $11,925 — and cash in on the government’s adoption incentives.
The top-shelf vendors in 2009 crisscrossed the country on a “stimulus tour” like rock groups, gigging at some 30 cities, where they offered doctors who showed up to hear the pitch “a customized analysis” of how much money they could earn off the government incentives. Following the same playbook used by pharmaceutical companies, EHR sellers courted doctors at fancy dinners in ritzy hotels. One enterprising software firm advertised a “cash for clunkers” deal that paid $3,000 to doctors willing to trade in their current records system for a new one. Athenahealth held “invitation only” dinners at luxury hotels to advise doctors, among other things, how to use the stimulus to get paid more and capture available incentives. Allscripts offered a no-money-down purchase plan to help doctors “maximize the return on your EHR investment.” (An Athenahealth spokesperson said the company’s “dinners were educational in nature and aimed at helping physicians navigate the government program.” Allscripts did not respond directly to questions about its marketing practices, but said it “is proud of the software and services [it provides] to hundreds of thousands of caregivers across the globe.”)
EHRs were supposed to reduce health care costs, at least in part by preventing duplicative tests. But as the federal government opened the stimulus tap, many raised doubts about the promised savings. Advocates bandied about a figure of $80 billion in cost savings even as congressional auditors were debunking it. While the jury’s still out, there’s growing suspicion the digital revolution may potentially raise health care costs by encouraging overbilling and new strains of fraud and abuse.
In September 2012, following press reports suggesting that some doctors and hospitals were using the new technology to improperly boost their fees, a practice known as “upcoding,” then-Health and Human Services chief Kathleen Sebelius and Attorney General Eric Holder warned the industry not to try to “game the system.”
There’s also growing evidence that some doctors and health systems may have overstated their use of the new technology to secure stimulus funds, a potentially enormous fraud against Medicare and Medicaid that likely will take many years to unravel. In June 2017, the HHS inspector general estimated that Medicare officials made more than $729 million in subsidy payments to hospitals and doctors that didn’t deserve them.
Individual states, which administer the Medicaid portion of the program, haven’t fared much better. Audits have uncovered overpayments in 14 of 17 state programs reviewed, totaling more than $66 million, according to inspector general reports.
Last month, Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, sharply criticized CMS for recovering only a tiny fraction of these bogus payments, or what he termed a “spit in the ocean.”
EHR vendors have also been accused of egregious and patient-endangering acts of fraud as they raced to cash in on the stimulus money grab. In addition to the U.S. government’s $155 million False Claims Act settlement with eClinicalWorks noted above, the federal government has reached a second settlement over similar charges against another large vendor, Tampa-based Greenway Health. In February, that company settled with the government for just over $57 million without denying or admitting wrongdoing. “These are cases of corporate greed, companies that prioritized profits over everything else,” said Christina Nolan, the U.S. attorney for the District of Vermont, whose office led the cases. (In a response, Greenway Health did not address the charges or the settlement but said it was “committing itself to being the standard-bearer for quality, compliance, and transparency.”)
Tower of Babel
In early 2017, Seema Verma, then the country’s newly appointed CMS administrator, went on a listening tour. She visited doctors around the country, at big urban practices and tiny rural clinics, and from those front-line physicians she consistently heard one thing: They hated their electronic health records. “Physician burnout is real,” she told KHN and Fortune. The doctors spoke of the difficulty in getting information from other systems and providers, and they complained about the government’s reporting requirements, which they perceived as burdensome and not meaningful.
What she heard then became suddenly personal one summer day in 2017, when her husband, himself a physician, collapsed in the airport on his way home to Indianapolis after a family vacation. For a frantic few hours, the CMS administrator fielded phone calls from first responders and physicians — Did she know his medical history? Did she have information that could save his life? — and made calls to his doctors in Indiana, scrambling to piece together his record, which should have been there in one piece. Her husband survived the episode, but it laid bare the dysfunction and danger inherent in the existing health information ecosystem.