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Administration Offers $1.2 Billion to Wire, Run Health IT System

By John Reichard, CQ HealthBeat Editor

August 20, 2009 – The Obama administration announced Thursday the availability of $1.2 billion in grant money to establish technical assistance centers and health information networks across the country.

David Blumenthal, the federal health IT coordinator, said the grants are a "critical step forward in laying the groundwork for meaningful use of electronic health records." Medicare payments to providers starting in 2011 will vary with whether or not they make "meaningful use" of the technology, a term that will be defined in a proposed rule to be issued late this year, Blumenthal said in a telephone press briefing Thursday.

An essential step in the process is helping doctors and hospitals pick out systems and learn how to use and maintain them, federal officials say. To that end, officials are offering grants totaling $598 million to create 70 or so "Health Information Technology Regional Extension Centers," which Blumenthal likened to the agricultural extension centers Congress set up early in the 20th Century to improve the efficiency of agriculture.

"The regional extension centers will offer hospitals and clinicians hands-on technical assistance to support meaningful use of certified electronic health record systems," he said.

Plans also call for the creation of a national "Health Information Technology Research Center" to help the regional centers collaborate with each other on best practices for putting systems in place.

Another $564 million in grants will go to states and other entities to create state or regional data exchanges. The aim is to promote the flow of electronic health information throughout the health care system. That will enable "information to follow patients within and across communities, wherever the information is needed to help doctors and patients make the best decisions about medical care," Blumenthal said.

Funds for the grants come from economic stimulus legislation. Blumenthal said other grants are in the works to aid in the development of a health information technology workforce.

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