One Certainty in Health Care Debate: Electronic Medical Records

While Congress debates and dithers over what should be part of health care reform, one item is already a certainty. IT companies are about to cash in on a financial bonanza. First up: $1.2 billion in grants to help health care providers convert to electronic medical records.

The great debate of August will be long remembered for the furor over health care reform. Over time, though, the summer of 2009 may well be better noted as when America got serious about converting to electronic medical records. As a part of the stimulus package President Obama signed into law in February, the White House said Aug. 20 nearly $1.2 billion in grants are now available to help hospitals and health care providers implement and use electronic health records.
The funds are dedicated to establishing approximately 70 Health Information Technology Regional Extension Centers across the country and to support states' efforts for information sharing within the emerging nationwide system of networks. The Extension Center grants will be awarded on a rolling basis, with the first awards being issued in fiscal year 2010. Grants to states will also be made in fiscal year 2010.

"With these programs, we begin the process of creating a national, private and secure electronic health information system. The grants are designed to help doctors and hospitals acquire electronic health records and use them in meaningful ways to improve the health of patients and reduce waste and inefficiency," Dr. David Blumenthal, national coordinator for Health Information Technology, said in a statement.

The Extension Centers are required by law to establish cooperative agreements through a competitive agreement. The centers will support at least 100,000 primary care providers, through participating nonprofit organizations, to achieve meaningful use of electronic health records and to establish a nationwide health information exchange.

The program will also establish a national Health Information Technology Research Center, which will collect effective practices from across the country and help the Extension Centers collaborate with one another and relevant stakeholders.

"Expanding the use of electronic health records is fundamental to reforming our health care system," said Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. "Electronic health records can help reduce medical errors, make health care more efficient and improve the quality of medical care for all Americans. These grants will help ensure more doctors and hospitals have the tools they need to use this critical technology."

The Regional Centers will focus their efforts on physicians, physician assistants and nurse practitioners furnishing primary care services, with a focus on individual and small group practices. While these clinicians deliver the majority of primary care services, they have the lowest adoption rate of electronic health records.

The centers will be evaluated every two years as to their effectiveness.