Shedding a Light on HIT – Beacon Awards

by | May 10, 2010

Last week, the White House finally announced the 15 Beacon Award recipients who will split the $220M (roughly $15M each) to effectively leverage HIT to improve healthcare delivery in their communities. While many a community waited patiently for this announcement that was originally scheduled for sometime in March, it appears that the feds, and in particular the White House, took their own sweet time in getting this announcement out, which reads more like a $$$ for jobs announcement than one about improving the quality of care through the judicious use of HIT.  White House must be getting some heat about where are all the jobs that were to be generated from ARRA, of which this particular program is but a tiny piece.  Sad thing here is, despite the heavy “jobs” messaging in this press release, the program provides funding for only three years, after that party’s over and so might those new jobs this program will create.

Quick Synopsis:

Over 130 proposals were received with only 15 given the green light.  Everyone seems to be looking to Washington there days for a hand-out.

Communities are geographically broad-based, a number of them are rural and range from behemoths like Geisinger, Intermountain and Mayo, to the Delta Health Alliance in Stoneville, MS.  Good to see such a broad cross-section of the US receiving awards though seeing big institutions receiving federal largess does make at least this analyst cringe.

One of the factors used in choosing these communities was the level of current HIT adoption where there needed to be above average EHR adoption and an existing exchange mechanism in place to facilitate care coordination.  This is not, thankfully, another program to pay for HIT, but to look at applying existing HIT infrastructure to improve care in specific disease communities.

Awards are heavily weighted to diabetes, with nearly 75% having some diabetes program associated with it.  Why diabetes, hard to say but one could make the conjecture that diabetes is one of the leading chronic diseases in this country and secondly, that it has relatively straight-forward metrics to measure and quantify.  This is myopic.  Seriously, if this program is to look at healthcare in its entirety and explore novel models for HIT deployment and use, should we not cast the net a bit broader? Likely, the three-year scope of this program limited more innovative models that may have had difficulty showing clear, demonstrable results.

A third of those receiving awards will have some component of consumer outreach ranging from basic patient education (hasn’t this been done enough already – by now we should know how to do this effectively) to a program in North Carolina that will include a Health Record Bank and another in California that will leverage mHealth to “…empower patients to engage in their own health management…”  OK, so we have 75% of all awards focusing on diabetes but it appears that only a third focus on consumer engagement?  Odd, very odd and hardly innovative.  Granted, this assessment is based on the White House PR, but still, to have what appears to be such a relatively small percentage of programs focusing on consumer outreach and the effective leveraging of HIT in these communities is a BIG PROBLEM. After all, it is the citizen consumer footing this bill, should they not see some direct benefit?

This is not not a grant program but a three-year cooperative agreement where the feds will work closely with these 15 communities in developing, deploying and ultimately measuring the success of these programs.  The tricky part will be to take the lessons learned and apply them more broadly to other communities.  Not an easy task and based on our limited observations to date, something the feds are not been very good at performing.

Many of the recipients plan to focus on the use of such technologies as mHealth, telemedicine and remote monitoring technologies to create new care models particularly with regards to chronic diseases.  Great to see support for these new technologies/approaches to care delivery. Hurray!  But there is one small problem with this (OK, it’s a REALLY BIG PROBLEM), ultimately, without CMS’s support (i.e., willingness to reimburse for the use of such technologies in the delivery of care) these potentially great ideas will end up on the proverbial shelf of great ideas with no sustainable business models.  But there may be a silver lining in recently passed Health Care Reform (Sec.3021) legislation that requires CMS to establish by 2013 an “Innovations Center” to look at new funding/reimbursement models.  Still looks pretty fuzzy from here, but keeping our fingers crossed that the Innovations Center will drive payment reform at CMS and open up the gates for innovation to blossom.

The Beacon Community Awards are not perfect but they are an attempt by at least one branch of HHS to support the innovative use of HIT at the community level.  The challenge for this program though will not so much be the deployment and use of the technology, but rather how to extend the likely successes in these communities more broadly across the US.  And while success is certainly measured in improved outcomes, the more important factor in the success of this program and others similar, is in the net benefit to clinicians and the institutions that employ them.  Thus, without payer and subsequently, payment alignment to these programs, their long-term success will likely not extend much beyond this limited three-year window of opportunity.


  1. preferredhospitals

    John: Isn’t the ‘Innovation Center’ (Section 3021) the pilot and demonstration wildcard, which is likely to be the source of ‘off balance sheet’ innovation?

    • John

      Found this on another site:

      “A new Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation will test innovative payment and service delivery models to reduce program costs while preserving or enhancing quality of care furnished to individuals (section 3021, as modified by section 10306). Among the host of models that this new innovation center will test are: patient-centered medical homes; direct contracting with groups of providers to promote innovative delivery service models; geriatric plans to coordinate care for individuals with multiple chronic conditions, including cognitive impairment or dementia; community-based health teams to support small-practice medical homes to assist primary care practitioners in chronic care management; promoting access to outpatient services without physician referral where the provider (such as a psychologist) has authority to furnish such services under state law; and utilizing, particularly in entities located in underserved areas, telehealth services in treating behavioral health issues, for example, related to post-traumatic stress disorder and stroke.”

      Clearly, the Healthcare Reform Bill is looking to provide CMS with an opportunity to test new models of care and payment delivery. This may provide an opportunity to link new payment models to what the Beacon Communities Program is trying to accomplish. which at the end of the day will be required for these new innovative HIT-based care models will need to have any chance of broader, nationwide adoption.

  2. Michelle W

    Thanks for this analysis; I skimmed the press releases last week without a clear idea of what these communities were for. I do remember the emphasis on there being “diversity,” (point 2) but wasn’t sure if that was merely PR or not.

    Hmm, 75% of the awards focused on diabetes? I could speculate that other reasons might be that it’s a diease effecting both the young and old, and that it’s considered a symptom of the obesity crisis. Still, that focus does seem short-sighted. I wonder if this is a nature of specific programs being targeted for funds or these programs merely being the ones that best met requirements (sort of a chicken-egg quandry).

    Finally, the point about innovation finding a successful business model seems to be the tagline of HIT in general. The question is how to make it appealing not just in a grand, “boldy-go-where-no-man-has-gone-before” way, but in the sense of practical gain. After all, while we took one giant leap for mankind in 1969, we haven’t been back to the moon since 1972. It’s not because the technology doesn’t exist for continued exploration, but exploring the unknown, in and of iteslf, isn’t enough to fund that sort of committment. HIT has more practical grounding, but still needs to make a bigger connection with the average doctor and patient to transform from novelty to necessity.

    • John

      Yes, HIT needs to ultimately drive value to the end user to drive adoption as you so aptly put it from novelty to necessity. That is why it is so important that the Beacon Community Program strive to link new payment models to these innovative approaches for care delivery. Hate to be crude, but honestly, at the end of the day it all boils down to: What’s in it for me? (value to clinician and/or patient).



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