HHS Adds $80 Million For Health IT Grants

Funding will be divided among Regional Extension Centers, health information exchanges, and workforce training initiatives, said the Office of the National Coordinator.
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The Department of Health and Human Services' Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) will allocate a total of $80 million that will be divided among Regional Extension Centers (RECs), health information exchange (HIE) and interoperability efforts, and community colleges, as the nation continues to modernize its health IT network.

In a letter posted Thursday on ONC's Web site, national coordinator David Blumenthal said the new year has brought a new chapter in the journey toward adoption and meaningful use of health IT (HIT). "As we begin this chapter, ONC is accelerating progress with new funding for programs vital to our goals," Blumenthal wrote.

Blumenthal said this month RECs will receive $32 million in additional funding, which will support plans to encourage healthcare providers to register for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) incentive programs and to help providers adopt health IT in their practices.

"We recognize that the early transition to HIT can be challenging and we want to make sure that our RECs are fully operational to help make this transition as smooth as possible," Blumenthal explained in the letter. "We are committed to offer substantial ongoing support to achieve meaningful use through the RECs."

Another $16 million will go toward providing new Challenge Grants to encourage breakthrough innovations for HIE initiatives that can be leveraged widely to support nationwide HIE and interoperability efforts.

The HIE Challenge Grant Program is providing 10 awards of between $1 and $2 million to State HIE Cooperative Agreement Program grantees to develop innovative and scalable solutions in five key areas: achieving specific health goals, improving care transitions, consumer-mediated information exchange, enhanced querying for patient care, and fostering distributed population-level analytics.

Blumenthal also announced in his letter that community colleges will receive $32 million in second-year funding to continue academic HIT programs training the specialists needed to make rapid adoption and meaningful use possible.

"We remain on track to ramp up and graduate an estimated 10,500 students a year through our community college programs," Blumenthal said.

In his letter, Blumenthal reminded healthcare stakeholders of the work that has already been done, and updated them on the success of each program, saying ONC has funded 62 RECs across the nation to provide technical assistance, especially for small-practice primary care providers, rural hospitals, and other settings that care for the underserved. "We want the RECs to assist at least 100,000 primary care providers. And already, some 38,000 primary care providers have enrolled for REC assistance," Blumenthal said.

ONC also created a state grant program to support HIE and facilitate all the potential uses and benefits of secure information sharing. "Already, approved HIE implementation plans are in place in 25 states," Blumenthal said.

Additionally, 84 community colleges have been funded to train HIT specialists that will help to meet the anticipated national shortage of 50,000. The first 3,400 students will graduate by May 2011, he said.

"These are the programs created under the HITECH Act to help providers adopt and achieve meaningful use of EHRs through technical assistance, through information exchange, and through development of a new workforce of HIT specialists," Blumenthal wrote.

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