The HITECH Act, short for the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health, was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 2009 as a part of the larger American Recovery and Investment Act. It provided funds and updated policy toward encouraging medical practices to better adopt and make meaningful use of Electronic Health Records (EHR) by the year 2019. The HITECH Act also acts as an addendum to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) passed in 1996, giving the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) broader jurisdiction to penalize medical practices for not securely handling personal health information (PHI).
Through the HITECH Act, the government offered incentives for medical practices to convert more of their records into EHR systems. Altogether, the act cost roughly $19 billion US Dollars (USD), $17 billion USD of which was set aside as incentive to practices for making a "meaningful use" of certified EHR systems. Incentives programs were to last from 2011 to 2015.
Beginning in 2011, medical practices that met certain EHR criteria could qualify for up to $107,750 USD over a five-year period; this amount represented $44,000 USD from Medicare and $63,750 USD from Medicaid. Regional Extension Centers (RECs) were set up across the country to help local practices better understand the HITECH Act and to assist the medical community in meeting criteria to receive incentives.
Under the HITECH Act, rewards for meaningful use of EHR systems would end after 2015, after which a more negative incentive would be enforced: fines for not responsibly and securely using EHR systems. Fines had already been in place under HIPAA since 1996, but the government sought to up the ante. After the HITECH Act passed, a hospital or medical practice that wasn't making meaningful use of EHR systems could be fined by the HHS. The HHS could also fine practices for unsecured PHI, meaning any patient's private information that isn't kept in an EHR system that meets the government's encryption and security standards.
The HITECH Act was the U.S. government's most concerted effort to push medical records fully into the technological realm of the 21st century. The government had deemed that an insufficient number of medical providers had implemented EHR systems. Instead, it was felt that practices were relying too much on outdated, paper-based filing systems. Those archaic systems forced patients and providers to sift through reams of redundant and superfluous documents that slowed the medical process down and made it less effective. It also allowed more room for mistakes, with a greater possibility for outdated, incomplete or mismatched patient files.
Outdated technologies, it was argued, ended up costing more time and money to manage than EHR databases. They also made it more difficult for patients to access necessary records and transfer them from one facility to another. An example of how EHRs would improve the new system would be when a patient visits a new doctor. Rather than have the patient fill out yet another long sheet regarding their medical history, the doctor could simply pull up that patient's EHR, quickly evaluate their history, and be able to confidently and more expediently attend to that individual's medical needs.