Unlike the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, the HITECH ACT of ARRA does not contain the words "Don't PANIC" printed in big bold text on the front cover, but it should.
The HITECH provisions describing meaningful use are principally concerned with motivating healthcare providers to use electronic medical records wht the anticipated goal of reducing the costs of care. They do so through INCENTIVES. See the definition below from wiktionary for the term:
incentive (plural incentives)
HITECH is nothing like HIPAA in what it requires of providers. HIPAA regulation basically stated that you had to use certain standards if you wanted to use electronic claims transactions, and that you had 2-3 years to do it, and there was no money from the Federal government to help it along. HITECH basically says that if you want to recieve incentive payments, then you have to do certain things over five years, and you'll be ahead of the game, and after five years, there will start being penalties for non-conformance.
Yes, this results in a great deal of craziness as everyone tries to ensure that they get as big a piece of the pie as they possibly can. But...
If you aren't ready, slow down. The world won't end tomorrow (or in the next two weeks), nobody is poised to bulldoze your practice. You have some time to make reasoned and good decisions. The incentives are structured so that the biggest payouts will be in the first years of technology adoption. Waiting a little bit won't cut a huge chunk off the potential incentives you can recieve, just read Page 354 of ARRA. In fact, you'll see that waiting a year (being a meaningful user in 2012) is just as good as starting in 2011.
That doesn't mean I don't want you to start now, because I do, but do so in a thoughtful way, and if you need more time, by all means take it.