Local communities to compete for $235m in health IT grants

The U.S. Health and Human Services Department will award $220 million to fifteen local communities in support of a program that will accelerate and demonstrate the ability of health information technology to transform local health care, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Wednesday.

Joined by Dr. David Blumenthal, HHS’ National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), Secretary Sebelius said an additional $15 million would be provided for technical assistance and to help communities evaluate the success of the program.

Dubbed the Beacon Community Program, local communities will establish cooperative agreements to build and strengthen their health IT infrastructure and health information exchanges, something Sebelius said was critical to improve health are in the U.S.

“Health information technology will make our health care system more efficient and improve care for every American,” Secretary Sebelius said during a press teleconference. “The Beacon Community Program is a critical step forward as we work to expand the use of health information technology in hospitals and doctor’s offices across the country.”

In order to qualify for the grants, communities must demonstrate a pre-existing health IT infrastructure and exchange to demonstrate care and cost savings; have higher than average electronic health record adoption rates; and coordinate with ONC officials to develop and disseminate best practices for widespread adoption of EHRs and health IT.

Among the highlighted federal programs HHS wants communities to work with is the Defense and Veteran Affairs’ Virtual Lifetime Electronic Health Record program. In the Beacon program’s proposal three awards will be reserved with communities who commit to working with the DOD and VA to develop a Virtual Lifetime Electronic Health Record.

In a blog posting Wednesday, Dr. Blumenthal said:

At the same time, the Beacon Communities will be coordinating their efforts and sharing lessons learned with the 70 Regional Extension Centers and State Health Information Exchange program that are providing the needed assistance to health care providers just getting started in their EHR system deployments. We also expect Beacon Communities to coordinate closely, wherever feasible, with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense’s efforts to improve the care of veterans and military personnel through health information exchange.

HHS emphasized that it wants to use the grants to facilitate the exchange of medical information based on standards and protocols developed for the Nationwide Health Information Network, which enables the transfer of data from one health provider to another.

Dr. Blumenthal said that health IT exchanges are at the heart of improving delivery and value of care, also noting the need for security among the exchanges. “We recognize that better health care does not come solely from the adoption of technology itself but through the ongoing private and secure exchange and use of health information to provide the best possible information at the point of patient care,” he said in a statement.

State, local, tribal, or territorial governments will be eligible for the grants, HHS said. Applications are due Feb. 1, 2010, and awards are expected in March 2010.

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