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. The Beacon Community Program funding comes from the $2 billion allotted for discretionary program spending in the $20 billion federal stimulus HITECH legislation signed into law as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act earlier this year.

So far, about 75% of the $2 billion HITECH discretionary funds have been allocated, said Blumenthal. That includes the Beacon Communities Program, as well as other recent initiatives, including the $80 million health IT workforce training program announced by HHS just before Thanksgiving.

President Obama was adamant about including health IT funding in ARRA because "improving quality of care is too important to wait for [healthcare] reform passage," said Sebelius. The new grants announced today, as well as other HITECH initiatives, are "all building blocks" of healthcare reform, she said.

Of the $235 million allocated for the Beacon Communities Program, $220 million will go toward grants for the 15 Beacon Community cooperative agreements for projects that include clinical decision support, creating infrastructures for goal setting, and governance in the use of e-medical records, said Blumenthal.

Of the reminder, $10 million will be used for an independent evaluation of the program and $5 million for technical assistance to the communities.

Applications to the government for the Beacon Community cooperative agreement grants are due in February 2010.

The new program's moniker is symbolic. Beacons "shed light locally and provide a point of location and guidance to those seeking direction," said Blumenthal. The new Beacon Communities "will be of service to others for meaningful use [of health IT]" and improving quality of care, he said.

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