ONC grants have to wait for 'meaningful use' rules? We think not

It could be a while before the Obama administration starts doling out the $1.2 billion in federal grants for health information exchanges and for EMR extension centers announced last week. Or could it?

The Hill, about as "inside the Beltway" as publications get, reports that the $598 million to establish health IT extension centers--intended to help providers select and implement EMRs--and the $564 million for health information exchanges won't be distributed until HHS finalizes its definition of "meaningful use" of health IT. As we report this week, that definition likely won't be in place until next spring.

But The Hill seems to have confused the two parts of the health IT stimulus. The net $17.2 billion in federal spending earmarked as Medicare and Medicaid incentives for providers requires "meaningful use" of the technology. The grants that Vice President Joe Biden, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and national health IT coordinator Dr. David Blumenthal unveiled in Chicago a week ago are from the $2 billion in discretionary stimulus funding that the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology controls. That's not directly subject to the "meaningful use" requirements.

The extension centers are supposed to help providers achieve meaningful use, which they of course can't do until the standards are published, but the grants are meant to set up and fund operations of 70 or so centers. Why couldn't the bidding begin before the rules are final, since providers will have such a short timeline to get their EMRs working if they want to earn subsidies in 2011? The same goes for health information exchanges. Dozens of the regional exchanges that will form the Nationwide Health Information Network are already operational, and their connections carry administrative, as well as clinical, data. No EMR standards are needed for that.

We believe The Hill got it wrong.

Decide for yourself:
- read The Hill's story