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Feds Offer $235 Million For Health IT Leadership

A new grant program will help leading communities advance and track their use of health IT to improve quality of care and become role models to other communities.

The U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services announced a $235 million grant program to fund communities strengthening their health information technology infrastructures and data exchange capabilities.

In a press teleconference on Tuesday, U.S. health secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the new Beacon Community Program grants will help communities of healthcare providers "get a handle" on improving care through the meaningful use of IT. The grants will help these communities -- including non-profit healthcare providers and government entities in rural and urban settings -- to advance and study improvements gained in patient quality of care through meaningful use of health IT.

The awards will be made to approximately 15 non-profit organizations or government entities representing geographic healthcare communities.

The grants will not be awarded to healthcare providers to start up health IT initiatives, but rather to communities that are already national leaders in their use of IT to advance healthcare quality, safety, efficiency, and population health. The establishment of the 15 cooperative agreements in designated regions "will be awarded based on merit," said Dr. David Blumenthal, national coordinator for health IT.

These "communities [will] become models for the rest of the country," said Sebelius. They will help other communities "look at the benefits of using technology and how to get those benefits," she said. The Beacon Communities will provide valuable lessons about the meaningful use of health IT to improve performance and quality of care, she said.

The Beacon Communities will be asked to track goals and measure improvements in efficiencies and quality of care that can be traced to the meaningful use of e-medical records and other health IT, said Blumenthal. Those improvements could include reductions in hospitalizations, smoking rates, blood pressure in patients with hypertension, or blood sugar in diabetics, he said.

Beacon Communities will also be asked to coordinate their efforts with state health information exchange programs and regional extension centers, which are "boots on the ground" assisting local healthcare providers in their deployment of health IT systems, said Blumenthal. The Beacon Communities will also be expected to maximize their efforts by leveraging other federal programs and government entities -- like the VA and Dept. of Defense -- that are also focused on promoting the exchange of health data.

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