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ONC pledges investment in health IT interoperability

A funding opportunity from the ONC and HHS will give out $28 million in awards, spread out among as many as 12 state HIEs.

As many as 12 states can look forward to an influx of monetary support for their health information exchanges due to a new round of funding from the ONC and HHS. An investment of $28 million will be made in an effort to support the interoperability of health IT tools and data.

The announcement, made on Feb. 3, came on the heels of the ONC's recently released 10-year roadmap to nationwide health IT interoperability. Many states hope to receive funding from the ONC. Those states left out may be forced to find other ways to meet ONC's expectations and achieve advanced interoperability by 2024.

The official grant opportunity for the upcoming HIE awards specifies the money likely will be given out in $1 million to $3 million sums to between 10 and 12 individual state HIEs or state-designated entities (SDEs).  In addition, for each $3 put toward an HIE project by federal funding, the applicant must contribute $1 of non-federal resources.

A total of 56 entities have received $547,703,438 in funding since the establishment of the State Health Information Exchange (State HIE) Cooperative Agreement Program in 2010. Many of these HIEs and others face the same challenge: how to get more hospitals and other providers to join an HIE.

In North Carolina, progress is being made. The North Carolina HIE added eight hospitals to its network in Nov. 2014, doubling its previous total. Although most hospitals possess standardized medical and have some level of interoperability, many aren't yet able to share important health information, such as summary of care records, patient demographics, diagnoses, procedures, allergies, lab results and medications with other hospitals.

The ONC hopes this funding will push grantees to further engage with care providers and support the exchange of health information. The official funding announcement states: "The awards will fund efforts to provide training, education and technical assistance services to minimize barriers and support care providers with incorporating health information exchange into their existing workflows."

Individual HIEs will be responsible for delivering educational services to aid the adoption and use of supporting technology by employees. The services would be customized based on the target populations and care settings in which the HIE tools are used. The funding document specifies that to meet funding requirements, grantees must select either eligible professionals or critical access hospitals as their target population for the category of eligible providers. They must also pick two non-eligible providers from the following list: long-term and post-acute care, behavioral health, individuals or other care providers and settings -- such as safety net providers, public health, social services, emergency medical services, learners and researchers.

Once those eligible and non-eligible providers are chosen, the HIE or SDE can be awarded funding by meeting three milestones defined by the ONC:

  • Adoption. To meet this qualification, grantees will need to increase use of health IT technology, services and tools.
  • The exchange of health information. Grantees must prove they have electronically and securely transferred standardized patient health information.
  • The interoperability and integration of data and involves increasing the amount of data exchanged between external sources, such as unaffiliated care organizations.

Complex concerns around interoperability costs, system configuration and connectivity remain. And in today's healthcare industry, hospitals have multiple HIEs to choose from. Some have deliberately set up private HIEs with groups of hospitals, distinguishing it from the state HIE. Other hospitals report that the costs of participating in an HIE and sharing data with other facilities are prohibitive. With the new grants, HIEs and SDEs should be able to convince more providers to join the interoperability movement. This will strengthen the level of connectivity between healthcare facilities and support many of the goals set forth in the ONC's 10-year interoperability roadmap

About the author:
Reda Chouffani is vice president of development at Biz Technology Solutions Inc., which provides software design, development and deployment services for the healthcare industry. Let us know what you think about the story; email
 editor@searchhealthit.com or contact @SearchHealthIT on Twitter.

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