A Digital Shift on Health Data Swells Profits in an Industry

It was a tantalizing pitch: come get a piece of a $19 billion government “giveaway.”
The approach came in 2009, in a presentation to doctors by Allscripts Healthcare Solutions of Chicago, a well-connected player in the lucrative business of digital medical records. That February, after years of behind-the-scenes lobbying by Allscripts and others, legislation to promote the use of electronic records was signed into law as part of President Obama’s economic stimulus bill. The rewards, Allscripts suggested, were at hand.
But today, as doctors and hospitals struggle to make new records systems work, the clear winners are big companies like Allscripts that lobbied for that legislation and pushed aside smaller competitors.
While proponents say new record-keeping technologies will one day reduce costs and improve care, profits and sales are soaring now across the records industry. At Allscripts, annual sales have more than doubled from $548 million in 2009 to an estimated $1.44 billion last year, partly reflecting daring acquisitions made on the bet that the legislation would be a boon for the industry. At the Cerner Corporation of Kansas City, Mo., sales rose 60 percent during that period. With money pouring in, top executives are enjoying Wall Street-style paydays.
None of that would have happened without the health records legislation that was included in the 2009 economic stimulus bill — and the lobbying that helped produce it. Along the way, the records industry made hundreds of thousands of dollars of political contributions to both Democrats and Republicans. In some cases, the ties went deeper. Glen E. Tullman, until recently the chief executive of Allscripts, was health technology adviser to the 2008 Obama campaign. As C.E.O. of Allscripts, he visited the White House no fewer than seven times after President Obama took office in 2009, according to White House records.
Mr. Tullman, who left Allscripts late last year after a boardroom power struggle, characterized his activities in Washington as an attempt to educate lawmakers and the administration.
“We really haven’t done any lobbying,” Mr. Tullman said in an interview. “I think it’s very common with every administration that when they want to talk about the automotive industry, they convene automotive executives, and when they want to talk about the Internet, they convene Internet executives.”
Between 2008 and 2012, a time of intense lobbying in the area around the passage of the legislation and how the rules for government incentives would be shaped, Mr. Tullman personally made $225,000 in political contributions. While tens of thousands of those dollars went to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, money was also being sprinkled toward Senator Max Baucus, the Democratic senator from Montana who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Jay D. Rockefeller, the Democrat from West Virginia who heads the Commerce Committee. Mr. Tullman said his recent personal contributions to various politicians had largely been driven by his interest in supporting President Obama and in seeing his re-election.
Cerner’s lobbying dollars doubled to nearly $400,000 between 2006 and last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. While its political action committee contributed a little to some Democrats in 2008, including Senator Baucus, its contributions last year went almost entirely to Republicans, with a large amount going to the Mitt Romney campaign.
Current and former industry executives say that big digital records companies like Cerner, Allscripts and Epic Systems of Verona, Wis., have reaped enormous rewards because of the legislation they pushed for. “Nothing that these companies did in my eyes was spectacular,” said John Gomez, the former head of technology at Allscripts. “They grew as a result of government incentives.”
Executives at smaller records companies say the legislation cemented the established companies’ leading positions in the field, making it difficult for others to break into the business and innovate. Until the 2009 legislation, growth at the leading records firms was steady; since then, it has been explosive. Annual sales growth at Cerner, for instance, has doubled to 20 percent from 10 percent.
“We called it the Sunny von Bülow bill. These companies that should have been dead were being put on machines and kept alive for another few years,” said Jonathan Bush, co-founder of the cloud-based firm Athenahealth and a first cousin to former President George W. Bush. “The biggest players drew this incredible huddle around the rule-makers and the rules are ridiculously favorable to these companies and ridiculously unfavorable to society.”
 
By Julie Creswell
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