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ONC pushes vendors to disclose information

Moves by federal health regulators to pressure EHR vendors to reveal more information about pricing and functionality of their software are meeting a mixed response.

ONC, at its annual meeting this week in Washington, D.C., unveiled procedures intended to make vendors comply with the agency’s 2015 Edition final rule and be more transparent about their EHRs by disclosing more information about ONC-certified software’s “costs and limitations.”

Vendors must make the disclosures and attest that they will or will not take additional voluntary actions to support transparency along the lines of the “Interoperability Pledge” to refrain from information blocking. The pledge was signed by dozens of health IT vendors and organizations over the winter.

“Under the ONC Health IT Certification Program’s enhanced transparency requirements, developers must fully disclose all known material types of costs and limitations — including technical and contractual restrictions,” according to a post on ONC’s blog by Elise Sweeney Anthony, acting director of the agency’s Office of Policy, and Steven Posnack, director of the Office of Standards and Technology.

“Developers must describe this information on their websites and in their marketing materials,” the blog continued. “These descriptions must use detailed, plain language that will allow providers and users to identify and understand the specific limitations and types of costs that may apply.”

But for one at least one major EHR vendor, the new requirements amount to little more than more bureaucracy.

“Like the meaningful use program, ONC’s latest well-intentioned effort to improve the health IT market will again have the opposite effect,” Dan Haley, general counsel and for athenahealth, Inc., said in an emailed statement. “Pricing and functionality transparency is best created by a free and functioning market — not by a website packed with opaque disclosures and attestations.”

Another EHR vendor, Amazing Charts, which like athenahealth mostly sells to ambulatory providers, had a more positive view.

Amazing Charts COO and president, John Squire, told SearchHealthIT he welcomes the ONC moves, maintaining his company has long practiced pricing transparency by publishing detailed costs on its website.

“I think it’s great. I think it helps level the playing field,” Squire said. “We’re competing against people who hide those fees.”

Marc Scrimshire, a developer, interoperability advocate and entrepreneur in residence at CMS building a Blue Button Plus patient access system for beneficiaries, called the ONC actions a “step forward.”

“Anything that’s going to push forward transparency and have a number of [EHR] vendors willingly provide information is a good thing,” Scrimshire said in a telephone interview from the ONC annual meeting. “It’s something that will help users compare fact against fiction.”

However, Scrimshire noted that ONC — as a largely coordinating agency and without significant enforcement power — is just one player in the health IT world.

“We’ve got to push as a community,” he said. “The government can’t do it on its own.”

In the blog post, however, the ONC officials noted the agency reserves the authority to terminate certification of health IT systems from vendors that don’t comply with the requirements or force vendors to take corrective action.