Thursday, June 11, 2009

RECs--What, Who and How?

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) has more than just EHR money in it. The act also seeks to encourage the establishment of "regional extension centers" (RECs) to provide support and assistance. Funding is being made available to organizations who meet certain requirements, and this funding is to range from $1-10 Million per year in two-year awards. So far, the government has published some criteria and guidelines for preference. Among other things, they are proposing to give preference to:
• Organizational plans and implementation strategies that include multi-stakeholder collaborations that make use of local resources, such as universities with health-related programs; medical or professional societies; state primary care associations; state or regional hospital organizations; large health centers and networks of rural and/or community health centers; state Area Health Education Centers; HIEs; and government entities such as public health agencies, libraries and information centers with health professional and community outreach programs, and consumer/ patient organizations.
• Applicants identifying viable sources of matching funds, including but not limited to grants from states and not-for-profit foundations, and payment for services from providers.

(as reported by Helen Pfister of Manatt Health Solutions. For her full write up, see ihealthbeat)

Historically, Federal programs have accede to state and local organizations--particularly in matters of geography. And in this instance, as is often seen as sensible, preferred organizations would be those connecting to and working with "local resources, such as universities...and consumer/patient organizations." And while extant organizations may understand their populations, local universities are often restricted in whom they can serve and where they can operate--to the state or locality in question. "State/local organizations" are often funded to serve--and only serve--residents of their state or locality.
In regional community healthcare services, all of this is counterintuitive to success. Providers serving similar populations in similar environmental and economic environments face the same problems and work towards similar solutions. Environments and economies do not stop at the legal boundaries of local or state government. The circumstances and life issues of The Blue Ridge Mountains extend across township, county and even state lines. Providers know this fact that bureaucrats miss. According to a survey of providers and provider organizations released by eHealthinitiative last month (available here), "Nearly half of respondents said that regional extension centers should not be constrained to a specific metropolitan or state boundary." In the eHealth survey, "local government-sponsored entities," are found very poorly suited to manage RECs by 42% of respondents.

The RECs are to provide support, guidance and knowledge-management resources to regional organizations receiving funding. Traditionally, providers have largely depended on publications, conferences and vendors for guidance on industry trends and software support. And vendors certainly meet the
other requirements to;
• Describe proposed levels and approaches of support for providers to be served;
• Address how the applicant would structure its organization and staffing to ensure providers served have ready access to reasonably local health IT "extension agents" and provide training and ongoing support for these critical workers;
• Demonstrate the capacity to facilitate and support cooperation among local providers, health systems, communities and health information exchanges ("HIEs");
• Demonstrate that the applicant is able to meet the needs of providers prioritized for direct assistance; and 
• Propose an efficient and feasible strategy to furnish deep specialized expertise (in such areas as organizational development, legal issues, privacy and security, economic and financing issues, and evaluation) to all providers served, as well as intensive, individualized, "local" presence from an interdisciplinary extension agent to smaller groups of providers assigned to individual agents.

And while vendors are experienced at offering service and support, providers are not that trusting. The absolute last choice by providers and provider groups to manage RECs was vendors--71% of those surveyed find them to be the MOST poorly suited. (Strangely, as to those who DO trust them, only 9% of those surveyed thought they were best suited. Note: Technology vendors made up 11% of the survey).

So who then is to create and manage the RECs?
Associations? HIEs? Not for Profits? Or will new things be formed among vendors, state agencies and inter-jurisdictional NGOs? The comment period for the regulations close at 5pm ET today. It will be interesting to see what people (and vendors, associations and providers) have to day...What do you all think?

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