Politics & Policy

Ebola, Electronic Medical Records, and Epic Systems

Did a major Obama donor get preferential treatment and possibly risk a disaster?

A Dallas hospital’s bizarre bungle of the first U.S. case of Ebola leaves me wondering: Is someone covering up for a crony billionaire Obama donor and her controversy-plagued, taxpayer-subsidized electronic-medical-records company?

Last week, Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital revealed in a statement that a procedural flaw in its online health-records system had led to potentially deadly miscommunication between nurses and doctors. The facility sent Ebola victim Thomas Duncan home despite his showing signs of the disease — only to admit him with worse symptoms three days later.

Hospital officials, who came forward “in the interest of transparency,” initially blamed work-flow and information-sharing problems for the botch. “Protocols were followed by both the physician and the nurses,” the statement noted. “However, we have identified a flaw in the way the physician and nursing portions of our electronic health records interacted in this specific case.”

Mysteriously, after taking special care to get their facts straight before releasing the statement, the hospital backed off a day later. The very specific communications flaw in the medical-records software — which apparently had prevented some staff from accessing Duncan’s travel history from Liberia — suddenly disappeared.

What really happened?

Here’s what I can tell you for sure: Texas Health contracts with Epic Systems for its electronic-medical-records system — and the Dallas hospital isn’t the only client that has complained about its costly information-sharing flaws and interoperability failures.

Epic was founded by billionaire Judy Faulkner, a top Obama donor whose company is the dominant EMR player in the U.S. health-care market. As I reported last year, Epic employees donated nearly $1 million to political parties and candidates between 1995 and 2012 — 82 percent of it to Democrats. The company’s top ten PAC recipients are all Democratic or left-wing outfits, from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (nearly $230,000) to the DNC Services Corporation (nearly $175,000) and the America’s Families First Action Fund super PAC ($150,000).

Faulkner, an influential Obama campaign-finance bundler, served as an adviser to David Blumenthal. He’s the White House health-information-technology guru in charge of dispensing the federal electronic-medical-records subsidies that Faulkner pushed President Obama to adopt. Faulkner also served on the same committee Blumenthal chaired.

Cozy arrangement, that.

Epic and other large firms lobbied aggressively for nearly $30 billion in federal subsidies for their companies under the 2009 Obama stimulus package. The law penalizes medical providers that fail to comply with the one-size-fits-all mandate. Obama claimed that the new rules would cut costs and reduce errors. But health-care analysts at the RAND Corporation admitted last year that their cost-savings predictions of $81 billion a year were vastly inflated.

Epic has been the subject of rising industry and provider complaints about its antiquated closed-end system — so much so that when Texas Health released its first statement about the software glitch in the Ebola case, Jack Shaffer, a health-care IT guru and top official at KRM Associates, immediately snarked on Twitter: “Guess Epic can’t share data even with itself!”

Until recently, health-care providers say, the company stubbornly refused to share data with doctors and hospitals using alternative platforms. Now it charges exorbitant fees to enable the very kind of interoperability that the Obama EMR mandate was supposed to ensure.

Another reality-check reminder: The inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported last year that no one is actually verifying whether the transition from paper to electronic is improving patient outcomes and health services; no one is checking whether recipients of the EMR incentives are receiving money redundantly (e.g., raking in payments when they’ve already converted to electronic records); and no one is actually protecting private data from fraud, theft, or exploitation.

In July, the Boston Globe reported that there is still “no safety oversight of the vendors who sell” EMR and EHR systems. One malpractice-insurance group revealed that it had found 147 cases “in which electronic health records contributed to ‘adverse events’ that affected patients.” Of these, 46 resulted in death.

GOP representative Phil Gingrey of Georgia cited criticisms of Epic at a congressional hearing this summer and asked: “Is the government getting its money’s worth? It may be time for the committee to take a closer look at the practices of vendor companies in this space, given the possibility that fraud may be perpetrated on the American taxpayer.” Not to mention the possibility of an impending Ebola epidemic.

The president-elect of the American Medical Association, Dr. Steven Stack, told Modern Healthcare magazine earlier this month that Epic’s software architecture “often leaves out key information and corrupts data in transit.”

Yikes. Imagine if some of that key data had to do with an Ebola carrier’s travel history. Oh, wait.

— Michelle Malkin is the author of Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies (Regnery). Her e-mail address is malkinblog@gmail.com. © 2014 Creators.com

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