Health data project fights for funding

Posted Jan. 06, 2009, at 8:51 p.m.

Developers of Maine’s new statewide electronic health information exchange system, HealthInfoNet, are troubleshooting a few technical problems and preparing to start processing and transferring medical data in the spring of 2009. The system has been in the planning and development stage since 2006, but the far-reaching economic downturn may limit its growth in the near future.

Six health care institutions are participating in the demonstration phase of the Maine project, including Brewer-based Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems and its affiliated hospitals in the northern half of the state.

Other participants include MaineGeneral Health in Augusta and Waterville, Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, Martin’s Point Health Care in Portland, MaineHealth in Portland and Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington.

EMHS affiliate Acadia Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Bangor, is not a participant.

The goal of the system is to streamline the sharing of critical patient information between participating hospitals and medical offices, helping to improve clinical care, reduce errors and hold down costs. Similar systems are under way in several other states, with an eventual goal of linking together a nationwide network.

A new study estimates HealthInfoNet could save between $10.6 million and $12.5 million in health care spending in Maine this year. By 2011, annual savings are expected to reach $20 million, according to the study, conducted by the Center for Health Policy and Research at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Future savings could top $50 million a year once all medical providers in the state are linked up, the study says.

With such substantial returns on an anticipated $6 million annual budget, HealthInfoNet would seem like a sure bet to garner state, federal and private funding, but proponents of the new system said Tuesday that hard economic times may hinder its development.

“Hopefully, we won’t run out of money before we run out of project,” said Devore Culver, executive director of the private, nonprofit organization, which has headquarters in Manchester. While hoping for an infusion of federal health information technology dollars in the economic stimulus package being developed by President-elect Barack Obama and the new Congress, Culver said he is prepared to continue “piecing together” funding to get his project up and running. Funding so far has come from the Maine Health Access Foundation, contracts with medical centers participating in the demonstration phase, and support from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Initially, HealthInfoNet will focus on improving the care delivered in hospital emergency departments. That’s the environment where patients typically are in the greatest need, and where clinicians are unlikely to know their patients and have the least access to existing diagnoses, prescription records, recent laboratory studies and diagnostic images, Culver said.

The system will contain only key information and not the patient’s entire medical record. For example, it will not include mental health or substance abuse records or the results of HIV testing. But even the limited HealthInfoNet data can provide lifesaving information for doctors and other providers faced with an unfamiliar patient in a medical crisis — information that may have been generated hundreds of miles away at a different hospital or medical office.

“Most providers see this as a huge benefit to their ability to deliver the right care at the right time to strangers who come through the door,” said Dan Coffey, EMHS executive vice president, treasurer and chief financial officer. “There are a number of imaging procedures and laboratory tests that could be eliminated if we have the information available on HealthInfoNet.” Coffey serves on the organization’s governing board.

Mainers who receive care at any of the participating facilities are already being given information about HealthInfoNet. Beginning sometime in the spring, their data will be automatically entered into the system unless they elect not to participate. “Opt out” forms may be mailed to the HIN offices or individuals may decline participation by visiting the HealthInfoNet Web site.

Culver said about 600 people have opted out so far. He emphasized that medical information on HIN is safeguarded against unauthorized access, following national security standards used by the banking industry and other business sectors.

Study author Shaun Alfreds of the Center for Health Policy and Research at the University of Massachusetts Medical School said Tuesday that savings estimates in the report are conservative, reflecting only a limited number of efficiencies and improvements likely to be realized by the use of the HIN system over time. He noted that Maine’s larger hospitals already have invested in electronic medical records and other information systems that will save money and improve patient safety within those institutions.

Alfreds said states such as Maine, with large populations covered by the public programs Medicare and Medicaid, have a lot to gain by investing in health information technology. He said the future of HealthInfoNet and similar systems depends not only on public support from state and federal sources, but also on investments from medical providers, private insurers and other members of the health care sector.

On the Web: www.hinfonet.org

mhaskell@bangordailynews.net

990-8291

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