AUGUSTA, Maine — A proposed $10 million bond issue to help independent physician practices start using and sharing electronic medical records won preliminary approval of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee after a public hearing Tuesday.
The measure, LD 1761, would authorize the state to issue $10 million in bonds for a period of no longer than 10 years. The money would be used to provide grants and low-interest loans to health clinics, primary care physicians and small community hospitals for the purchase of computer hardware and software specifically for developing and sharing electronic medical records.
If approved by the Legislature and incorporated into Gov. John Baldacci’s bond package later this year, the issue still would require approval by Maine voters in November.
In introducing the bill, sponsor and committee member Sen. Lisa Marrache, D-Waterville, said the fund is needed to help Maine physicians, especially those in private practice and not affiliated with hospitals, avoid federal Medicare penalties that will take effect in 2015. By contrast, the Medicaid program will increase payments to practices using electronic medical records beginning next year.
In addition to establishing a fund for loans and grants, the bill would assign the administration of the money to the Finance Authority of Maine with some oversight by the Governor’s Office of Health Policy and Finance. It also would provide technical support to physician practices, including group purchasing and staff training. Health InfoNet, a private nonprofit agency already connecting more than 2,000 Maine health care providers and 16 hospitals through an online patient information network, would provide the technical support functions.
Speaking in favor of the bill was Gordon Smith, executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association, which represents Maine doctors. Although a growing number of doctors and other health care providers practice in hospital-owned groups, he said, hundreds remain in small independent practices, especially in the rural areas of the state. For this population, he said, the money to invest in new technology is hard to come by, as is the time it would take to shop for appropriate hardware and software, install new computer systems and train staff.
Devore Culver, executive director of HealthInfoNet, also spoke in support of the measure. He said bringing small health care practices on board with electronic medical records is essential to improving patient care and holding down the cost of health care. HealthInfoNet’s goal of expanding statewide, using a recent $6.6 million federal stimulus grant, “will not be optimized until we are connected to the smallest, most distant practices,” he said.
No one spoke in opposition to the measure. After a brief work session, the committee voted. With several members absent, the panel took a preliminary vote, with the majority supporting the measure. Opposed were Sen. Sarah Lewin, R-Eliot, who arrived late to the hearing and said she needed more time to consider the measure, and Rep. Henry Joy, R-Crystal, who expressed concern about the original wording, which would have required the naming of a new board to make grants and loans. Joy said he would prefer to see a panel named from within FAME or some other existing organization.
The committee will consider the measure again, along with possible amendments, and take a final vote Thursday afternoon.