HHS to dole out $1.2 billion for health IT grants

Money would go toward setting up key infrastructure to help physicians choose and use the right EHR.

By — Posted Aug. 31, 2009

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The Obama administration will make available nearly $1.2 billion in federal grants to create a large network of regional health information technology centers and state-based entities to support physicians and hospitals as they acquire and implement electronic health records systems that meet federal standards.

Physicians and hospitals need to have an EHR system in place that meets "meaningful use" standards if they hope to be eligible for the billions in Medicare and Medicaid bonuses available starting in 2011 through the economic stimulus package adopted earlier this year. The grants announced Aug. 20 by the Dept. of Health and Human Services and Vice President Joe Biden are designed to provide a supportive framework to help entities meet those standards, which will be proposed before the end of the year.

David Blumenthal, MD, the national health information technology coordinator, said the new money is intended to help create a national, private and secure EHR system.

"The grants are designed to help doctors and hospitals acquire electronic health records and use them in meaningful ways to improve the health of patients and reduce waste and inefficiency," he said. "They will also help states lead the way in creating the infrastructure for health information exchange, which enables information to follow patients within and across communities, wherever the information is needed to help doctors and patients make the best decisions about medical care."

Helping small practices

Under the first of the two new grant programs, nearly $600 million will be used to establish approximately 70 health IT regional extension centers. The entities will offer technical assistance, guidance and information on best practices to help physicians and hospitals more quickly become meaningful EHR users.

The regional centers will focus on helping primary care clinicians, with a particular emphasis on individual and small-group practices. Clinicians in such practices deliver the majority of primary care services but have the lowest rates of EHR adoption, and the least access to resources to help implement and use such systems, according to HHS.

"Expanding the use of electronic health records is fundamental to reforming our health care system," said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. "Electronic health records can help reduce medical errors, make health care more efficient and improve the quality of medical care for all Americans."

The performance of each regional center will be evaluated every two years by an HHS-appointed panel of experts. EHR industry observers are encouraged by the centers, which they say will help physicians and hospitals select certified paperless records systems that offer the best value for their needs.

"That guidance definitely needs to be there, because most providers are struggling with what they need to do, and how to do it," said Bruce Taffel, MD, vice president and chief medical officer for SharedHealth, a vendor of health information products and solutions based in Chattanooga, Tenn. "I think these extension centers will be a helpful piece of this."

The regional extension center grants will be awarded on a rolling basis, with the first awards issued in fiscal 2010, HHS said.

Focus on interoperability

The second grant program will provide more than $560 million to states starting next fiscal year through cooperative agreements to create a widespread and sustainable health information exchange.

Legal, financial and technical support is necessary to enable secure exchange of sensitive patient data across health care systems, according to HHS. The program will help fund efforts at the state level to implement directories and technical services to enable interoperability within and across states. Some health IT experts say such assistance is vital in helping physician practices become meaningful users.

"I think this has tremendous potential to help improve the health IT infrastructure of the country," said Marc Probst, chief information officer with Intermountain Healthcare, a nonprofit system of hospitals and clinics based in Salt Lake City.

"A large concern is clearly the ability for people who don't have technical expertise to implement these systems," said Probst, who also is a member of the Health Information Technology Policy Committee, an advisory board established this year that makes recommendations to Dr. Blumenthal and his staff. "In just about every interview I've had with doctors, physician groups and even hospital chains, the ability to exchange data between systems was high on everyone's list."

Probst said he's very concerned about physician groups and hospitals who may not have the resources to implement an EHR that meets meaningful use standards, though he believes the policy committee's recommendations approved by Dr. Blumenthal earlier in August will be very close to what the Obama administration proposes in regulation later this year.

Dr. Blumenthal said more announcements will be made within months regarding additional grant programs to assist with EHR implementation.

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External links

Health Information Technology Extension Program (link)

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