Federal Money May Wire Primary Care Docs

March 24, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Small primary care physician practices in West Michigan could be eligible for up to $290,000 in Medicare funds to launch electronic health records, Department of Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Tevi Troy announced during a visit to Grand Rapids last week.

Troy said the Alliance for Health will lead the application process to tap into $150 million in Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services allocations, intended to jump-start the use of information technology in health care. The money incentives would be paid over five years, starting in 2009.

“The demonstration project is to encourage the adoption of health information technology for small- to medium-sized primary care physicians’ offices,” Troy said. “The idea is to make sure it’s not just hospitals and large practices that adopt health care information technology, but that smaller community practices adopt it, as well. We think five (doctors in the practice) is an ideal number.”

He listed the benefits of electronic health records as error reduction, increased efficiency and dollar-saving.

The HHS is seeking 40 to 50 applications from communities large enough to recruit 100 small primary care practices to receive incentives and another 100 to act as control sites, Troy said. In June, CMS plans to select 12 applicants for the demonstration project. It is unclear whether small offices within large practices would be eligible, added CMS Regional Administrator John Hammarlund.

“This is our way of helping to overcome that economic obstacle that seems to affect small practices much more disproportionately than large practices to make this kind of an investment,” added Andrew Croshaw, senior executive advisor to HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt.

Practices would be required to meet increasingly stringent benchmarks to continue receiving the incentives over the five-year period.

For example, by the end of the second year, the practices must be using software that meets Certification Commission for Healthcare Information Technology standards — still under development — which will ensure connectivity between the various systems. As time goes on, incentive payments will be connected to performance on quality measures tracked by the electronic health records.

Troy said CMS is encouraging other private and public payers to offer similar financial incentives.

“Twenty-four hundred practices nationwide is only a drop in the bucket, but the idea is that these 2,400 practices can be held up as a model of improved practice, improved efficiency, of saving money and saving lives, and it will encourage other small- and medium-sized practices to adopt this model,” Troy added.

Alliance for Health President Lody Zwarensteyn said the opportunity to apply fits well with the organization’s grant-funded projects to gather and publish quality information and to establish a regional health information exchange.

“These things calibrate perfectly. Rational people can’t pass up the opportunity the secretary has given us. It’s a wonderful opportunity on behalf of the community,” Zwarensteyn said.

Troy also presented Zwarensteyn with an engraved glass plaque, recognizing the local nonprofit health care planning agency as one of the nation’s first 14 Chartered Value Exchanges. As a CVE, Alliance for Health will have access to practice-level quality data from Medicare, and will network with similar organizations across the nation to share best practices. Troy said that HHS plans to have a total of 50 CVEs by 2010.

“Grand Rapids has been awarded one of the first Charter Value Exchange awards,” Troy said. “They are communities that recognize the importance of bringing value to health care. Value is really the combination of cost and quality, and bringing those ideas to the consumer so they can make informed health care decisions.”

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