Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt says 1.5 million Americans are hurt every year from errors caused by bad handwriting on doctors' prescriptions. He announced a solution Monday that may make written prescriptions obsolete.

Leavitt said the government next year will begin giving doctors bonuses if they send prescriptions for Medicare patients by secure e-mail, through "e-prescriptions" — which, of course, would be clearly typewritten.

"We expect this will have a profound effect on the adoption and use of e-prescribing," said Leavitt, a former Utah governor.

"Beginning in 2009 and the following four years, doctors will be eligible for additional payments from Medicare when they prescribe electronically," Leavitt said.

"The first year they will get 2 percent extra. The next year, 1 percent. And from 2011 and on they will get 0.5 percent. For several years, those additional payments will be phased out, and doctors who are not participating in e-prescribing will be reimbursed at lower rates."

Leavitt said that HHS in 2005 began issuing standards for doctors and pharmacists to follow with e-prescriptions, but incentives also were needed to help push the change from handwritten to e-mailed prescriptions. He said Congress allowed incentives in recent legislation, leading to the new bonus program.

Leavitt said e-prescribing not only will improve care by reducing the number of errors from bad handwriting but also will save time and money. He noted one study estimates that "each year pharmacists make more than 150 million phone calls to physicians to clarify what is written on the prescription."

"That is a lot of people needlessly hurt and a lot of time spent trying to sort out bad handwriting," he said.

He also announced a conference will be held later this year by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to help doctors and pharmacies work through some of the remaining technical issues for e-prescribing to help them gear up for bonuses that would be available next year.

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