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Health Care Awaits Stimulus Money for Tech Upgrades

May 06, 2009
Friday, March 27, 2009 Health care awaits stimulus money for tech upgrades Denver Business Journal - by Bob Mook Kathleen Lavine | Business Journal Dr. Joe Heaton, chief medical information officer for Exempla Healthcare, says an improved electronic medical-records system would reduce medical errors and financially help hospitals and doctors. View Larger Colorado health care leaders agree: President Barack Obama’s commitment to earmark $19 billion to improve information technology in the medical sector will help doctors and hospitals operate more efficiently and reduce medical errors. But is it enough? Can it build a comprehensive network to handle regulatory complexities that vary from state to state? “Nineteen billion dollars is not enough money,” said Donna Lynne, president of Kaiser Permanente Colorado. “But it’s $19 billion more than what was available in 2008.” Lynne credited Obama for appointing David Bluementhal, a respected health policy expert, as director of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT. Bluementhal’s appointment and the financial commitment “reinforces the importance of the office,” Lynne said. Medical providers that want stimulus money must meet a set of governmental standards. These include “inner-operability” requirements, designed to ensure that computers have compatible software so they can talk to each other. That way, a doctor could obtain instant medical information about, for example, a Des Moines, Iowa, resident who’s seeking care in Colorado. The stimulus money isn’t expected to start flowing until 2011, when the federal government is expected to complete its standards for how the IT systems should work. Lynne said the timeline is concerning because in the meantime, doctors may invest in new technology that might not be in compliance with those standards. She said many doctors have limited ability to obtain or send electronic medical records (or EMRs) for the patients they serve. Under the stimulus plan, doctors will get financial incentives for getting on an electronic network that will let other medical providers access critical patient information. However, those who avoid joining the system would be penalized through lower reimbursement rates from the government-run Medicaid and Medicare programs, beginning in 2014. As a provider of both health care services and insurance, Kaiser is well ahead of the IT game, Lynne said. The nonprofit already has invested $4 billion into improving its IT network for its physicians and more than 8.4 million members nationwide. Dr. Joe Heaton, chief medical information officer for Exempla Healthcare, believes the emphasis on electronic medical records (EMR) would reduce medical errors and bring financial benefits to hospitals and doctors. Exempla began implementing a new IT system before its Good Samaritan Medical Center in Lafayette opened in 2004. Since then, Exempla has worked to integrate the system into its other local hospitals, including St. Joseph’s Hospital in Denver and Lutheran Medical Center in Wheat Ridge. While the hospital system won’t necessarily qualify for the stimulus money, Heaton believes it would be entitled to incentives that could save it several millions of dollars every year. Exempla already has had benefits from the new system, Heaton said. He said Good Samaritan’s system has cut 30 minutes from the time it takes to deliver prescription medications to patients. In June, Exempla plans to strike an agreement with Kaiser and The Children’s Hospital in which the three providers would share EMRs. Heaton said once inner-operability exists, hospitals and doctors likely would share basic (but potentially life-saving) information, such as medications used, allergies and medical conditions.