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Stimulus funds boost electronic health records

The national health care debate continues on Capitol Hill, but that won’t stop Springfield medical leaders from injecting innovation into the local health care scene.

Last week U.S. Sens. Richard Durbin and Roland Burris, D-Ill., announced that the United States Department of Health and Human Services would award $750,000 to the Illinois Primary Health Care Association to aid its transition to electronic health records.

IPHCA represents community health centers — nonprofit community health care providers that provide low-income and medically underserved populations with primary and preventative care services such as dental, mental, x-ray, pharmacy and health and nutrition education. The Springfield-based organization will receive the funding as part of $27.8 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds awarded nationwide to health centers and health center networks for health information technology. Near North Health Services Corporation in Chicago was the other Illinois organization to receive economic stimulus funds for implementing electronic health records, in the amount of $746,671.

“Because they can be shared instantaneously with multiple doctors and can be transmitted hundreds of miles in seconds, electronic health records are an effective tool for improving the quality of health care and saving lives,” Durbin said in a statement.

In a separate statement, Burris said that he wants to see Recovery Act funds used to help patients and health centers now, while legislators persist in producing an effective health insurance reform bill.

“These funds will ensure that health centers have the most innovative health information technology to help improve the efficiency of our system, and the safety of patients,” he said.

IPHCA recently created its own e-net Health Information Network — a group of interested community health centers that collaborated to select and implement health information technology such as electronic medical and dental records.

Rebecca Phillips, director of communications, says that five community health centers, including Central Counties Health Centers, Inc., on E. Cook St. in Springfield, are currently operating with the new technology. These five centers operate nearly 60 health care sites and treat more than 167,000 patients.

The next phase will allow seven additional health centers to “go live” with technology in mid-2010, benefiting 19 sites and 76,000 more patients, she says. IPHCA is working with community health centers to establish a third phase.

Phillips says that IPHCA has secured $4.2 million to support this initiative. These funds have all been used to support the network’s start-up costs, while member community health centers share ongoing maintenance costs.

“If someone were going to go out and do this on their own, they would have to pick up the costs,” Phillips says. “For community health centers, that makes it a cost-prohibitive endeavor for them because it’s so expensive.

“Anything additional IPHCA receives helps to offset their costs. That’s huge, especially for community health centers.”

Community health centers serve 1 million patients at 300 sites in Illinois, Phillips adds — of those, nearly 50 percent are enrolled in Medicaid, Family Care or the All Kids programs, while 32 percent have no health insurance.

Dr. James Dove, president emeritus of Prairie Cardiovascular, first introduced electronic health records in Springfield in 2003. Most of the local medical

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community has now started implementing electronic health records. Even though it’s costly and time-consuming, Dove says, more work and finances are needed to develop the technology. The federal stimulus funds for IPHCA are a step in the right direction, he adds.

Dove says electronic health records eliminate error and boost efficiency. Doctors and nurses can readily view patients’ records — even from multiple locations. During a patient visit, they can simultaneously access medical history, pre-existing conditions and past medications. After the visit, they can

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send prescription or refill requests directly to pharmacies, as well as receive lab reports and test results, using computer technology.

“We need to get as many up as possible,” Dove says. “Electronic records are where we should be going.”

President Barack Obama expects the nation’s entire health care system to adopt electronic health records by 2014.

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