By: Emily Micucci
The use of paper charts in the doctor's office is by now a quaint practice reserved mostly for small providers, as health care practices have migrated to more efficient electronic health records systems.
But exceptions remain. Behavioral health organizations, for example, are playing catchup when it comes to adopting the pricy technology.
While federal funding has helped hospitals and primary-care practices defray the expense via the federal Meaningful Use regulations — which require health care providers that contract with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid to adopt electronic health records — the same level of financial support has eluded behavioral health providers.
That's been a surprise to no one, said Richard Hooks Wayman, CEO of LUK Inc., a Fitchburg-based social services agency that provides behavioral health services in Central Massachusetts.
An historical lack of funding, focus?
"It's always been true that mental health and addiction (treatment) has been the stepchild of the health care system both in terms of funding and focus," he said.
But that may be changing. Last week, the state's health care IT agency, Massachusetts e-Health Institute, or MeHI, announced a round of grants that will help behavioral care providers, including three in Central Massachusetts.
It is the first set of grants under MeHI's eQuality Incentive Program (eQIP), which is intended to help behavioral health providers invest in records systems that reduce health care spending while improving the quality of care. By funding e-health records, the program also allows behavioral care providers to connect to the state's health care information exchange, the Mass HIway, so that vital patient information may be available to other providers they see.
Today, there are about 6,000 providers, mostly doctors, registered on the Mass HIway, out of approximately 25,000 doctors practicing statewide, according to MeHI Director Laurance Stuntz. Stuntz said MeHI is now focused primarily on getting behavioral health and long-term care practitioners to sign on too, and the state's efforts will be helped by a new wave of federal grants directed at those providers.
MeHI doled out almost $1 million in its first round of grants to behavioral health recipients, which include Spectrum Health Systems of Worcester, the Multicultural Wellness Center of Worcester, and LUK's Crisis Center in Fitchburg.
For these organizations, cobbling together the cash to pay for pricy electronic health records systems is a challenge. Chuck Faris, CEO of Spectrum, estimated his organization will spend about $1 million to pay for licensing, training and customization of an electronic health records system issued by Netsmart, a leading electronic health care records vendor.
Faris: E-health records crucial for business
The MeHI grant to Spectrum provides $82,500 over four years, provided the organization meets milestones that display increasingly advanced use of the system. Spectrum has gotten support from other organizations too. Despite the cost of implementing electronic health records, Faris hopes the investment will provide a strong return. Not only does the system allow seamless management of patient records; Faris said it also accelerates the billing process from about 34 days to two to three weeks. This will cut lag time on collecting payments and allow Spectrum to bill more frequently, which is important in the tight-margined behavioral health business.
"In order for us to be able to say in business, we have to be able to do this," Faris said.
Wayman, the LUK CEO, said he's glad that the state is including behavioral health providers in programs that support electronic health records. He noted that many LUK clinicians prescribe medication, and that information should be available to other health care providers, such as hospital physicians, through the Mass HIway in order to avoid potentially dangerous drug interactions.
Training another challenge
LUK began the process of interviewing IT vendors last year and hopes to have all its clinicians online by October, Wayman said. It will cost around $60,000 to launch the system, and the $33,000 MeHI grant will cover most of that, Wayman said.
Now it's time to train LUK's more than 60 clinicians, who are caring mental health experts but not necessarily IT whizzes.
"I think that's part of the great learning curve," Wayman quipped.