WASHINGTON – Those hard-to-read scribbled prescriptions from doctors could soon become a rarity. Beginning Jan. 1, the federal government will boost Medicare's payments to doctors that send prescriptions electronically to a pharmacy rather than writing them out on paper and handing them to the patient.
The widespread adoption of electronic prescribing is expected to save taxpayers as much as $156 million over the next five years and save lives, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said Monday.
Currently, about 10 percent of family physicians use computers to transmit prescriptions to pharmacies. The software can ensure that all necessary information is filled out and legible and also allows doctors to keep better tabs on their patients. They can check for the possibility of an allergic reaction or whether a prescription may conflict with another medicine. They can also see if patients are taking their medication as directed.
Congress approved the higher payments last week as part of a bill that voided a 10.6 percent cut in reimbursement rates for doctors who treat Medicare patients. President Bush had vetoed the bill because of other provisions that lowered payments to health insurers. But on the issue of electronic prescriptions, lawmakers and the administration were in broad agreement. In the end, Congress ended up overriding Bush's veto.
In a conference call with reporters, Leavitt said the provisions for electronic prescriptions should cut down on an estimated 1.5 million injuries each year caused by drug-related errors. He noted that pharmacies also make more than 150 million telephone calls each year to clarify what was written on a prescription pad.
"That's a lot of people needlessly hurt and a lot of time spent trying to sort out bad handwriting," Leavitt said.
The biggest barrier to electronic prescribing has been the expense of buying and setting up the necessary equipment and software — an estimated $3,000 per prescribing doctor. So Congress agreed to pay doctors slightly more over the next five years when they use such systems. They would get an extra 2 percent in their reimbursement rates when treating Medicare patients during 2009 and 2010, 1 percent more in 2011 and 2012 and 0.5 percent more in the final year.
"It is fairly costly for a small practice to begin the change-over to e-prescribings so the incentives in this particular bill will help," said Dr. James King, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Congress also put in place financial penalties for those physicians who decline to use electronic prescribing, dropping their Medicare reimbursements by 1 percent in 2012, 1.5 percent in 2013 and 2 percent in 2014. Some exceptions will be allowed for hardship cases.
Leavitt said Medicare officials will hold a conference in the fall to help doctors work through some of the technical issues involved in setting up electronic prescribing.