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EHR Donation To Help Bridge Digital Divide

Quest, and its IT subsidiary MedPlus, are the first vendors to officially participate in a HHS effort to support e-health record adoption rates among healthcare providers in underserved, minority communities.

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Quest Diagnostics announced it is donating e-health records products and services worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to small doctor offices treating minority patients in Houston, Texas.

With its donation, Quest--and its IT services subsidiary MedPlus--becomes the first vendor to officially participate in an effort to help bolster e-health record adoption rates among healthcare providers in underserved, minority communities. The U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services' Office of Minority Health launched the effort last October with the national coordinator for health IT at the time, Dr. David Blumenthal, who urged the health IT vendor community to get involved.

The HITECH Act of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is providing more than $20 billion in federal incentives to encourage the deployment and meaningful use of health IT systems by U.S. healthcare providers. Blumenthal, however, said then that the government was soliciting the assistance of health IT vendors to "make sure we are not creating a new form of digital divide."

According to federal government data from the 2005-2006 National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey and National Hospital Ambulatory Medicare Care Survey, EHR adoption is lower among providers serving Hispanic patients who are uninsured or rely on Medicaid, and is lower among providers serving uninsured, non-Hispanic black patients than among providers serving privately insured, non-Hispanic white patients.

Meanwhile, the rate of chronic illnesses, including obesity and diabetes is higher among patients in those ethnic groups compared with other groups.

Quest Diagnostics plans to donate approximately 75 licenses for its cloud-based Care360 EHR software, including subscription fees for 12 months to small doctor practices serving minority patients in Houston.

Quest, which is based in N.J., chose Houston as the first city in the donation program in part because the company "already has a good footprint" among other healthcare providers there, said Dr. Meera Kanhouwa, a MedPlus VP and its medical information officer in an interview with InformationWeek Healthcare.

As part of the program, Quest will also provide software interfaces, integration services, and training to help participating physician practices make the EHR transition, she said.

Quest is donating approximately 85% of the cost for health provider EHR licenses, program integration, monthly subscription fees, and education and training. Since 2006, an exception to the Federal Stark Law and Anti-Kickback Statute has permitted donation of certain EHR arrangements but requires recipients to pay 15% of donor costs.

The value of the Quest and MedPlus donation of software is about $229,500 in total for the 75 licenses. The Quest EHR software per physician typically costs $300, she said. Quest is picking up 85% of those costs, or about $255 per month, per participating doctor for 12 months.

Also, to each of the participating practices, Quest is donating 85% of costs associated with related software interfaces--which typically run about $2,500--and training, which also typically costs about $2,500, said Kanhouwa.

For this program, Quest will collaborate with the federally funded Regional Extension Center (REC) at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston on staff education and training. RECs are funded under the HITECH Act.

Other partners in the HHS program include the National Health Information Technology Collaborative for the Underserved (NHIT), a Washington, D.C.-based public, private and community partnership that supports the effective use of health information in underserved populations with emphasis on communities of color, the Healthcare & Information Management Systems Society Latino Initiative Workgroup, and Medic Success, a New Jersey company that promotes health-related solutions for underserved communities. These groups will assist in physician recruitment. The Office of Minority Health will be responsible for program evaluation.

A health care provider who wishes to participate in this initiative must practice in a Medically Underserved Area (MUA) or Health Provider Shortage Area (HPSA) designated by HHS. The practice must also have an Internet connection and use an electronic billing system.

The practice must also be a small group of one to five providers or a Federally Qualified Health Center within the MUA and/or PSA.

The average size practice in Houston participating in the program will have about three doctors, said Kanhouwa.

Also, in order to participate, the practice must be eligible to receive "meaningful use" incentives, as defined by the HITECH Act; and complete an initial application and submit monthly reports.

Quest will evaluate whether it will expand its participation in the program to other cities in addition to Houston, said Hanhouwa.

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