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Keep up to date on ARRA funding

May 1, 2009
by Katherine E. Peres, PhD
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Some dollars are available to behavioral healthcare providers, but lobbying will be needed to secure more

There has been a great deal of excitement in the healthcare and information technology communities since mid-February. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) contains provisions for spending more than $19 billion for healthcare information technology (HIT) infrastructure and Medicare and Medicaid incentives to motivate providers to use HIT in a meaningful fashion within their organizations. The National eHealth Collaborative (NeHC) is encouraged by President Obama's and Congress's support to “ensure the utilization of an EHR [electronic health record] for each American by 2014.” NeHC touts the law's determination to solicit “full participation of stakeholders” in the process of recommending how to accelerate HIT adoption.1

It is important to note that when ARRA was first written, behavioral healthcare providers were excluded from both the Medicare and Medicaid incentives as well as the $2 billion in HIT grants that will be distributed through the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC). Yet because of the hard work of the Software and Technology Vendors' Association (SATVA), the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, and the National Association of Counties, the legislation was modified so that behavioral healthcare providers are eligible for the ONC grants.2 Unfortunately, they still remain excluded from the $17 billion in Medicare and Medicaid incentives that go into effect in 2011. All interested parties are encouraged to lobby their members of Congress to make sure behavioral healthcare providers are added to this incentive program, perhaps as part of a healthcare reform package. With a coordinated effort, we can change this discriminatory policy.

Hospital systems and the physicians who are part of them are adopting medical EHR software as well as other IT tools to facilitate HIT's deployment in the general medical arena. These organizations' size and their available staff resources will make it easier for them to apply for some of the ARRA funding. Large community mental health centers with staff dedicated to acquiring, implementing, and upgrading HIT also may be able to successfully position themselves to obtain some of the $2 billion in grant funding. Less clear is whether small mental health group practices or small community-based behavioral healthcare organizations will be able to benefit from the available monies. To make sure your organization is able to take advantage of this and possible future funding, below are some steps to take.

Plug into as much information as possible. It's time consuming and therefore costly to read all that is available, but it will be much more costly to be poorly informed. Start by visiting as many free online resources as possible. Behavioral Healthcare (http://www.behavioral.net) and its sister publication, Healthcare Informatics (http://www.healthcare-informatics.com), are great places to start. Bookmark http://www.nationalehealthcollaborative.org and http://www.hhs.gov/healthit. Subscribe to whatever they offer so you can keep abreast of the rules developed for funding applications. Visit the National Governors Association's Center for Best Practices (http://www.nga.org/center) and get on its e-mail list (To subscribe, send a blank e-mail to join-nganews@talk.nga.org). This will keep you informed of events at the state level. Some states are moving forward with HIT much more rapidly than the federal government. Take a look at some of the outstanding documents on HIT prepared by the California HealthCare Foundation (http://www.chcf.org).

A lot of useful information can be found in places other than “traditional” Web sites. Obtain a blog-notification program or have blogs delivered to your browser's homepage. Visit http://www.technorati.com or http://blogsearch.google.com to find blogs that routinely provide HIT information. Some that I follow are EMR (EHR) and HIPAA at http://feeds2.feedburner.com/EmrAnd Hipaa; Healthcare Informatics' blogs (Instructions for following them are at http://www.healthcare-informatics.com under “Setting up your feeds” in the “Blog postings” section); and FierceHealthIT blogs at http://www.fiercehealthit.com/feed.

Also, read white papers offered by consulting organizations and vendors, and get guidance and assistance with applying for ARRA funds. Get referrals from colleagues who have used consultants. Don't try to go it alone.

Determine if it makes sense for your organization to seek a piece of ARRA's $2 billion in grant funding. If you plan to do so, sign up for any courses or free webinars that will assist you with the process. Press your professional or trade association to gather information and provide it to its members for free.

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