Meaningful Use Stage 2 will go on as planned with no further extensions, but Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner announced that the agency would be more flexible about providing hardship exemptions for providers and vendors truly struggling to meet the incentive program’s requirements.

Such exemptions–in which providers wouldn’t receive an incentive payment, but wouldn’t be penalized by CMS–already were available for providers.

Tavenner, delivering a keynote address Thursday morning at HIMSS14 in Orlando, Fla., said she knows there have been many concerns, noting that CMS is concerned, too. The agency, she said, had already pushed back on the program as much as possible.

“Now is not the time for us to stop moving forward,” Tavenner said. “We understand providers and vendors have legitimate issues. We will work with you on exemptions, and we’re glad to offer flexibility.”

Added Tavenner, “I’m asking all of you to help us get there to make sure we all get to the starting line together.”

Robert Tagalicod, director of the office of e-health standards and services at CMS, hinted at the announcement last Sunday at the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives CIO Forum when he said that there would be news “under the rubric of relief.”

In November, FierceEMR‘s Marla Durben Hirsch suggested that CMS pay more attention to hardship exemptions for unforeseen circumstances.

Last summer, the Medical Group Management Association, in a letter to U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, asked for a moratorium on penalties imposed on physicians who have successfully completed Stage 1 requirements.

CHIME President and CEO Russell Branzell, in a statement emailed to FierceHealthIT, called the relief that could come from more flexible exemptions “vitally important,” to the success of the Meaningful Use program. However, he added that if CMS defines the exceptions in a way that doesn’t meet the core needs of CHIME’s constituency and the industry, “we will continue to seek the kind of flexibility that nearly 50 national healthcare organizations communicated” to Sebelius.

Tavenner also put a lid on the possibility of any delays to ICD-10, pointing out that a standard that the rest of the world has adopted has been delayed here in the U.S. more than once.

“Let’s face it guys, it’s time to move on,” she said. “There will be no change in the deadline for ICD-10.”

With that in mind, Tavenner reiterated the end-to-end testing that will be made available to providers, outlining agency initiatives for the mandate in four steps: internal testing for the claims process, beta testing in March, releasing assessment tools to the provider community and the aforementioned end-to-end testing.

“In March, we will be soliciting volunteers to participate in end-to-end testing,” Tavenner said. “Over 500 volunteers and over 25,000 test claims will be used. We know that we can get this done.”
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