With the announcement Tuesday that the final two Regional Extension Centers (RECs) have been selected, Dr. David Blumenthal, national coordinator for health IT, has declared that a national system comprising 62 organizations is now in place to assist doctors and hospitals adopt electronic health records (EHRs).
"The selection of these final awardees means that Regional Extension Centers are now in place in every region of our country to help health providers make the switch from paper-based medical practice to electronic health records," Blumenthal said in a statement. "For primary care physicians and smaller hospitals in particular, the RECs will be an important resource to help meet the challenges of adopting EHRs and using them to deliver better care."
The two new awardees are the CalOptima Foundation covering Orange County, Calif., which received $4.7 million, and the Massachusetts eHealth Collaborative covering the state of New Hampshire, which received $5 million.
Expanded coverage areas were also announced for two Florida REC organizations: Community Health Centers Alliances will cover additional areas in Glades and Hendry counties, and Health Choice Network of Florida will cover additional areas in Indian River, Palm Beach, St. Lucie, Martin, and Okeechobee counties.
RECs will target their assistance to eligible primary care providers (PCPs) in smaller practices as well as small and rural hospitals and public health clinics. However, the RECs will also serve as a resource for all providers in an area, giving assistance to any doctor, hospital, or clinic making the request. Each REC organization has identified a target number of primary care physicians, based on population needs, to be assisted in the first two years of the program. For awardees announced today, the targets are: Orange County, Calif., 1,000 PCPs; New Hampshire, 1,000 PCPs; Glades and Hendry, Fla., 21 PCPs; and Indian River, Palm Beach, St. Lucie, Martin, and Okeechobee, Fla., 1,000 PCPs.
"Conversion from paper to electronic health records is a challenging task for any provider, and we believe that help from the RECs will make an important difference, especially in assisting doctors in smaller practices and the smaller and rural hospitals," said Blumenthal. "The RECs can also be important in helping providers make full use of the potential of EHRs for improving care and making medical practices work more effectively and efficiently."
The importance of cooperation between RECs and healthcare delivery stakeholders could be seen last week when the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) and the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) issued a joint letter to REC project officers across the nation seeking their collaboration in achieving an electronically enabled healthcare system.
The letter encourages RECs to work with CHIME StateNet Coordinators to realize their health IT initiatives and help providers in their geographic service areas select, successfully implement, and meaningfully use certified EHR technology.
StateNet is a 50-state network of CIOs created by CHIME to facilitate the sharing of best practices and strategies to assist information-exchange development and state-level cooperation.
RECs were created last year under the Health Information Technology Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. HITECH provided approximately $2 billion in new programs to provide training and technical assistance and to demonstrate the effectiveness of health IT in supporting improvement in care. Under the HITECH Act, $677 million is allocated for the next two years to support a nationwide system of RECs.
Additionally, the HITECH Act also created the Medicare and Medicaid EHR incentive programs, which will provide incentive payments to eligible professionals and hospitals that adopt and demonstrate meaningful use of certified EHR technology. Incentives totaling as much as $27.4 billion over 10 years could be expended under the program, which is administered by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.