HHS bolsters HIE, interoperability efforts with $28 million grant program

Interoperability has been a focal point of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT's efforts in recent months, as the Meaningful Use incentive program inevitably sunsets.

That trend continued this week at ONC's annual meeting in the District of Columbia. On Tuesday, for instance, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell announced a two-year grant program for $28 million to advance the adoption and use of interoperable health IT tools and services to support health information exchange.

The agency will bestow as many as 12 new awards in the form of cooperative agreements to states, territories or state designated entities to continue work under the same intent as the original State Health Information Exchange Program.

"This two-year grant program will ask awardees to demonstrate innovative, community-based solutions to advance standardize, secure and interoperable movement of health information across organizations, vendors and geographic boundaries," Burwell (pictured) said at the meeting.

"It's important to remember the real reason we're doing this work because if we succeed in our efforts around interoperability and delivery system reform, it means that a patient who's admitted to a hospital or referred to a specialist will be more likely to get the right tests and medications because her doctors are doing a better job of coordinating with each other. It means businesses--large medium and small, including their workers--will benefit as we continue to slow the growth in healthcare costs, frame them to reinvest the dollars they save and hire quality care for their employees."

Meanwhile on Monday, National Coordinator Karen DeSalvo trumpeted the agency's release, last week, of its draft interoperability roadmap for public comment. In 2014, she said, ONC hosted 15 different listening sessions across the country to get a sense of what's working and what's not in health IT. All of those findings, as well as input from federal advisory board members, were crucial to the development of the latest version of the roadmap.

"We really want to see that it's an all-in equation and that we have the chance to have more seamless interoperability so it's not an afterthought or an additional bit of workload," DeSalvo said on Monday to open the meeting. "We know that it's time to see this return on investment and we know that the clock is ticking."

DeSalvo described several "clear pathways" to meaningful interoperability, including the setting of clear standards that can be built upon over time and the creation of a "trusted environment" in which data is collected, shared and used.

"We are clear in our role in this document and we believe that we have an opportunity as the federal government to achieve interoperability based on a set of levers that we have laid out," she said.

President Barack Obama's proposed Fiscal Year 2016 budget, released Monday, would provide a significant boost to ONC's annual budget of $60 million. Obama asks Congress for roughly $92 million, much of which would go toward advancing interoperability of health information.

"Looking back 10 years at what [former National Coordinator] David Brailer wrote and said about connected care for the nation, and as we think again to connecting care for the nation, I think about who might stand on this stage in 10 years as the national coordinator and reflect back on the challenge of interoperability that we are facing today, and I would hope that it would have been solved," DeSalvo said.

To learn more:
- read about the new grant program

Editor's Note: FierceHealthIT Associate Editor Katie Dvorak contributed to this report.