ONC has been working hard to do what they can with the limited budget and regulatory allowance they have available to address some of the challenges exposed by COVID-19. For example, they’ve announced previously an effort to expand LOINC to support public health needs and grants to expand HL7 standards related to the public health emergency response. Today, ONC announced two new grant funding announcements looking at HIE’s work with public health (STAR HIE Program) and tracking the use and impacts of health IT.
The first program is officially called the Strengthening the Technical Advancement and Readiness of Public Health via Health Information Exchange Program (STAR HIE Program) which feels like an appropriately long name fora government program. In this program, 5 grants of $500,000 totaling $2.5 million in funding are available to HIE organizations that can be used over a 2 year period.
The announcement suggests that the goal of these grants is to improve the linkages between public health agencies and the services HIEs offer. Some of the services mentioned include:
- Services that benefit public health registries;
- Connectivity services that benefit a public health agency; and/or
- Data services that benefit a public health agency.
The objectives of the STAR HIE Grant program are to:
- Build innovative HIE services that benefit public health agencies.
- Improve the HIE services available to support communities disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the announcement also notes that there are approximately 100 HIE organizations in the US and notes that the HIE trade association says those HIEs cover 99% of the US population, those of us on the ground that not all HIEs are created equal. Plus, it sounds like they’re using the term “cover” very loosely.
On the one hand it makes sense for ONC to continue work with HIEs, but on the other hand there are a lot of areas of the country that don’t have a working HIE. This grant funding is likely going to make the rich richer when it comes to their HIE. Plus, while some HIEs are well connected to their communities, many are not. This will leave a lot of holes in the data that’s needed for public health efforts which begs the question of whether the HIE is the right avenue for retrieving this data or whether it should be with the provider organizations directly. Of course, that would likely lead to the rich healthcare organizations getting richer too. So, it’s a tough situation and the effective HIEs can help solve some of the problems they’re trying to solve.
The other grant area that ONC announced today was a $290,000 grant for the first year of a 3 year analysis that will track use and impacts of health IT on US based office physicians. You can find the details of this ONC funding opportunity here and they are also holding a webinar to share details.
This grant is interesting because it’s asking for a “3-year program period to measure the use and impacts of health IT among a nationally representative sample of U.S. office-based physicians. It is also intended to produce national-level data on interoperability among office-based physicians. These data shall provide insights on the implementation and effects of federal health IT policies as well as identify disparities or unintended consequences resulting from their implementation.”
This type of report could be really valuable if it’s done right. Hopefully, ONC is sincere in their desire to understand how their regulations and requirements are impacting healthcare organizations. This is a hard thing to measure, but a worthy cause since many experts in healthcare regulations I talk to at hospitals and health systems have lamented that the various regulations aren’t actually providing value to patients.