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HHS Gives the Green Light to 26 Projects Stressing Health Care Innovation

By Jane Norman, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

May 8, 2012 -- A plan to improve dental care for American Indian mothers, children, and diabetics living on reservations in South Dakota is among 26 innovation projects that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently announced it will fund.

Delta Dental Plan will receive $3.4 million to train two dozen dental hygienists and community health workers to provide preventive care to patients on the reservations and coordinate their care, according to the HHS grant announcement. The plan covers more than 30,000 "isolated, low-income and underserved" Medicaid beneficiaries and American Indians throughout the state and is anticipated to save $6 million over three years, HHS officials say.

Despite pressing needs among poor and elderly Americans, the dental community in the past has resisted efforts to expand preventive dental care into the hands of hygienists or therapists because they say the training for such mid-level professionals is inadequate. But a similar program using dental therapists has been launched in Alaska to serve native Alaskans—another low-income population with major needs for preventive dental care.

The innovation projects, funded under the health care overhaul (PL 111-148, PL 111-152), are regarded as a core piece of the push to make the nation's medical system deliver higher quality care at a lower cost. Overall, during the next three years the grants are predicted to reduce health care spending by $254 million, a tiny amount in comparison to spending overall, but a start down the road to a better system in the eyes of the overhaul law's supporters.

"And we're just getting started. We'll announce another round of innovation awards in June," HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a blog post .

The awards also have a political tinge in this campaign year as they are being doled out under the umbrella of the Obama administration's "We Can't Wait" initiative, named for President Obama's comment in October 2011 that "we can't wait for an increasingly dysfunctional Congress to do its job."

Sebelius said the 26 grants totaling $122.6 million, will allow the best ideas in health care to be tested to see how they work out. Those selected also were picked because they showed how the health care workforce could be expanded, said Sebelius.

Other projects include:

  • A grant of $4.5 million to the Center for Health Care Services in San Antonio, Texas where 24 health care workers will be trained to provide behavioral care integrated with health care for 250 homeless adults with severe mental illness. Most are Medicaid beneficiaries.
  • A grant of $9.7 million to Duke University to work with the University of Michigan National Center for Geospatial Medicine and organizations and counties in North Carolina and West Virginia to reduce deaths and disabilities from type 2 diabetes. Data will be used to target patients and neighborhoods by risk and communities that need interventions. Local teams of health care workers will provide home care.
  • A grant of more than $10 million to Emory University in Atlanta, which will partner with a contractor and medical centers to hire 40 health care professionals who will be sent to rural hospitals in northern Georgia. Telehealth services will be used to link them with hospitals and doctors in Atlanta and reduce the need to transfer Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries to city hospitals.

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