More than $11 million in federal stimulus money is headed to Maine to support job training in the health care field and to advance the use of Internet technology in health care.
The funding awards — $4.9 million from the U.S. Department of Labor and $6.6 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — were announced Friday.
The DHHS funding will be used to expand Maine’s HealthInfoNet system, an electronic network that compiles essential patient information and makes it available to health care providers across the state. The nonprofit HealthInfoNet project is nearing the end of a two-year pilot project connecting the state’s three largest health care systems — in Bangor, Portland and Augusta — with Martin’s Point Health Care in Portland and Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington.
“With this funding we’ll go statewide,” said Trish Riley, director of Gov. John Baldacci’s Office of Health Policy and Finance. The funding will establish a HealthInfoNet coordinator within Riley’s office, a prerequisite for receiving the federal grant, with a primary focus on integrating the patient data system with the state’s Medicaid program, MaineCare. Legal issues, such as protecting patient confidentiality, are another area of intense focus, she said.
Individual patients have the option to opt out of having their data entered into the network.
Riley said Friday that HealthInfoNet will expand to include all of Maine’s hospitals and affiliated medical practices, as well as free-standing clinics, home care agencies and other providers of health care services. The system has the ability to collect electronic data from a number of sources and translate them into a common format. Other states are developing similar systems, she said, and eventually these state-level networks will connect with each other to form a national network.
HealthInfoNet spokesman Jim Harnar said Maine’s congressional delegation deserves credit for pressing to include money for health information technology in the federal stimulus legislation.
“A year ago, it was very unclear whether there would be money in the recovery act for health IT,” he said. “Our delegation really stepped up.” By improving efficiency and quality of care, Harnar said, systems like HealthInfoNet have a critical role to play in the national debate over health care reform.
Labor Department funds will be available to help individuals pay for the clinical education they need to work in health care settings. The goal is to help lower-level workers, such as clinical assistants and technicians, to progress into higher-level professions such as nursing. Priority also will be given to displaced workers who have lost their positions in layoffs.
Phil Johnson, vice president of human resources at Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems in Brewer, said many current employees are enrolled in part-time classes, trying to move into higher-level clinical professions within health care.
“Either they’re taking one course at a time or else they start and then quit because they can’t afford to go on,” he said.
Although Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and some other EMHS affiliates have taken steps recently to trim their staffs because of the difficult economic times and other factors, Johnson said the need for trained clinical professionals will outlast the current recession.
“Long term, we’re going to need a lot more nurses, a lot more CNAs [certified nursing assistants],” he said.
EMHS is one of several Maine-based employers and educational institutions, including Husson University in Bangor and the University of Maine System, that collaborated with the Maine Department of Labor to apply for the federal jobs funding.
All four members of the Maine congressional delegation lauded Friday’s funding announcements, and 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree was among several lawmakers who joined U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis in a national news event.
Gov. John Baldacci praised the funding announcements in a prepared statement. In addition to expressing support for work-force training, Baldacci said the HealthInfoNet system is key to improving the health care delivery system in Maine.
“Investing in our health technology lays the foundation for a more efficient and effective health care system that serves patients better and at less cost. I am pleased that our federal partners have recognized Maine’s work to address access, quality and affordability of health care,” he said.
Students and others seeking more information about health care education assistance may call the Maine Jobs Council in the state Department of Labor at 621-5087.