Rural Illinois hospitals get HIE funding

Almost all of Illinois’ 51 critical access hospitals have had electronic health record (EHR) systems for a while. One of the more pressing challenges — aside from declining funding and late Medicaid payments from the state — has been health information exchange.

Critical access hospitals (CAHs) serve many of Illinois’ rural areas, and often refer patients to specialists at urban health systems in St. Louis, Terre Haute, Chicago and cities in central Illinois. Yet information exchange between the CAHs and specialists has often been slowed, or hindered, by what Illinois health IT officials call a “white space” — a gap in health information exchange capabilities for small physician practices, federally-qualified health clinics and CAHs.

[See also: Success story: Iowa critical access hospital implements EHRs.]

Now, Illinois CAHs are getting some support to connect to regional HIEs or the Illinois Health Information Exchange, the statewide HIE that’s just getting up and running. As part of a recent $1.3 million round of HITECH Act funding awards for health information exchange, the Illinois Office of Health Information Technology has awarded $338,000 to the Illinois Critical Access Hospital Network, which is helping CAHs reconfigure their health IT systems and build new HIE interfaces.

“It’s going to be quite a mix of connections,” said Mary Ring, a senior policy advisor at the Illinois Critical Access Hospital Network. “We’re probably going to focus on 19 or 20 hospitals, those without a single regional HIE that would make more sense for them.”

A number of Illinois’s HIEs and RHIOs are in various stages of development and operation, and most are set to connect to the Illinois Health Information Exchange or ILHIE, a public HIE in its second year of implementation that will also be a primary connector for many CAHs.

There’s not a lot of funding to “support a single connection, let alone two,” Ring said. “For those hospitals, we’re recommending looking at the Illinois HIE, so they have a single connection.”

[See also: ONC sets sights on rural and critical access hospitals for MU acceleration.]

Ring said the CAHs are going to have about $15,000 each from the grant, to help with installation, maintenance and training, to work with ILHIE’s vendor, InterSystems, based in Cambridge, Mass. Interoperability will be one of the primary objectives; many of the CAHs built their EHR systems over time, and have multiple vendors, Ring said.