HHS awards second round of extension center grants

By Mary Mosquera
06:07 PM

The Health and Human Services Department today awarded $267.6 million in grants to 28 non-profit organizations, bringing to a total of 60 the number of awards it has made to set up regional extension centers (RECs) to assist healthcare providers deploy electronic health record systems.

The awards, announced April 6, are the second set of grants HHS has made to establish a nationwide array of RECs.

In February, it awarded more than $375.2 million for 32 extension centers, which in the next two weeks will start to sign up physicians and recruit employees, according to senior officials at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT.

The RECs are a vital part of HHS's efforts to improve the quality and efficiency of healthcare, said Dr. David Blumenthal, the national coordinator for health information technology. The centers offer field support for healthcare providers to accelerate the adoption and meaningful use of health IT and to qualify for incentive payments under the HITECH Act in so doing.

"This is a person-intensive type of work where elbow-to-elbow type of assistance to physicians is an important part of the task," Blumenthal said in a teleconference about the announcement.

The RECS will give physicians and small practices a local resource to reach out for technical guidance and information on best practices in purchasing and deploying electronic health records and redesigning office workflow to incorporate them in their daily patient care, Blumenthal said.

ONC will approve the first set of plans in about a week, and the centers will ramp up their services in earnest in two weeks, said Dr. Farzad Mostashari, an ONC senior advisor and early pioneer of an extension center model in New York City.

"We've emphasized that they have to focus on providing services that are custom-made for providers in their area," he said. "There could be some Web-based outreach, but it also needs to be personal contact and communication because we want to make sure that every provider has a host of services for what they need to get going," he said on the call.

Extension centers in Virginia, the West Coast and the Midwest will be among the first programs to start. "They are all very eager to start enrolling doctors and giving them the support they need. We really are hitting the ground running," Mostashari said.

ONC hopes to deliver technical support to 100,000 primary care providers and hospitals within two years.

An extension center could have 50 people working among several teams with various skills, including providing education and project management around deploying an EHR system, quality improvement, and even some lawyers providing privacy and security advices, Mostashari said.

The extension centers will most likely have a location and organization, where staff report to work, Blumenthal said. But there may be various models depending on the location.

For instance, in a dense urban area, employees may work from a central office and travel to physicians' offices, while in a rural area there may be a central office with satellite locations and much more reliance on virtual assistance.

In the announcement, the largest awards went to Quality Insights of Pennsylvania Inc., King of Prussia, Pa. ($28.8 million) and New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, N.J. ($23 million). The smallest award went to Alaska eHealth Network, Anchorage, Alaska ($3.6 million), according to the announcement.

All extension center awardees may also apply for a total of $25 million more in funds over two years to help the nation's 2,000 critical access and rural hospitals, which have 50 beds or less.

A complete list of the regional extension center awardees is here.