Sunday, January 30, 2011

Spotlight on Rural Health

Conference attendees came to Washington D.C from all over rural America to hear ideas and thoughts on how to handle critical rural health issues facing our nation. The National Rural Health Association (NRHA) and Policy Partners “2011 Rural Health Policy Institute” held January 24-25, 2011 presented many opportunities for attendees to hear from the federal agency officials, from members of Congress, to network with colleagues and leaders in the field, and make trips to Capitol Hill to meet with members and their staffs. The attendees at the annual NRHA luncheon were able to enjoy listening to a satirical group the “Capitol Steps” poke fun at the Washington political scene.

The Conference brought up some critical rural issues such as dealing with the workforce shortage crisis and how to eliminate the long-standing payment inequities for rural providers. Some of the other critical issues include the unfair treatment of Critical Access Hospitals, the need for rural clinics to participate in the 340B discount drug program, Medicare payment caps to rural health clinics needs to increase, rural access to anesthesia services needs to improve, and fair payment rates for rural pharmacies is vital.

NRHA has released their Health IT priority recommendations at the Conference. NHRA wants to see a centralized federal entity established to identify gaps in current federal program eligibility, determine potential funding streams from across agencies, build awareness of the HIT issues among agencies, collaborate to build an integrated network, and encourage compatibility among state requirements with state level programs.

Marcia Brand PhD, Deputy Administrator, HRSA presented an overview of HRSA’s activities in supporting rural health and how the agency has taken the lead on more than 50 provisions pertaining to rural communities contained in the Affordable Care Act.

The largest and most highly visible program is the expansion of the Community Health Center System and the National Health Service Corps. Also, Dr. Brand, reports that HRSA is working very hard on rural workforce and infrastructure expansion, making evidence-based information available, expanding rural telehealth and health IT, improving rural public health activities, initiating a quality improvement pilot program, and addressing the nation’s oral health needs.

Another speaker Dr. David Blumenthal, National Coordinator for Health IT is proud of the recent HIT achievements. Two weeks after the “Meaningful Use” incentive program was official, over 13,000 providers registered. “Meaningful Use” stage 2 discussions now underway involve health information exchanges, clinical decision support, and consumer and patient access.

He explained how on a recent visit to Holland a country of 16 million, he noted that 100 percent of the general practitioners are transmitting electronically through many local exchanges. As Dr Blumenthal discussed, it has been found that it is important to start information exchanges locally, develop trust in relationships, and then expand nationally. As Dr. Blumenthal explained, developing Health Information Exchanges is a team sport. The first step for the team is to work in communities, and then at that point, the government can help connect the system overall.

Dr. Blumenthal pointed out that the 15 Beacon Communities that received funding to use for HIT pilot projects will demonstrate the feasibility of putting widespread networks in place in diverse areas as Oklahoma, Mississippi, Maine, North Carolina, and Utah. In general, the Beacon community is a magnet for collaboration and innovation and will enable the health IT community to come together.

Dr. Blumenthal and Mary Wakefield, Administrator HRSA are co-leading a HHS Rural HIT Taskforce to address specific health IT challenges and zero in on what needs to be accomplished. In addition, the Office of the National Coordinator is working not only with HRSA but also with the FCC, VA, USDA, and the Department of Commerce on a number of issues of importance to the rural community.

For more information on the NRHA Conference, go to