RECs' continued funding hinges on 'positive' biennial reviews


Some HITECH Regional Extension Centers (RECs) could lose their funding or be absorbed by neighboring centers if they fail to pass federal evaluations in January and do not comply with corrective actions within 60 days thereafter.

Cycle 1 RECs — some 32 centers that initiated their programs via HITECH grants on Feb. 2, 2010 — were required to submit operational data to the Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) by Dec. 31, 2011 for review by HHS-appointed evaluation panels. The evaluations will be completed at the end of this month. RECs that don't receive positive marks will have a chance to make improvements, but failing that, the ONC said they would be defunded.

RECs, tasked with helping priority primary care providers (PPCPs) within defined geographic service areas successfully implement and meaningfully use certified EHR technology, were budgeted for four years of federal funding under HITECH. The Cycle 1 RECs are now at the midpoint of the grant program and subject to the biennial reviews. Programs that receive an overall positive review — either through initial review or by achieving the objectives of a corrective plan — will be allowed to access funding for years 3 and 4.

Mat Kendall, who oversees the REC program at ONC, told PhysBizTech that the review panels would be looking at milestones. "We’ll be looking at how the RECs are doing in providing assistance with implementation support. We’ll be looking at things like whether they are getting broad support from industry and other key stakeholders, how they are disseminating information, how they are participating in exchange, and how they are utilizing federal and other agencies’ expertise in integrating health information.”

“Our goal here is to make sure we are getting the highest quality services out to the providers in the field, and that we’re making sure we’re helping as many people as possible get on EHR systems and get to meaningful use," Kendall said. "Because we recognize how difficult that is, we want to make sure the RECs are really progressing along that path.”

According to ONC, RECs have recruited more than 110,000 PPCPs into their programs, a figure 10 percent above the agency’s goal.

Nonetheless, Kendall acknowledged that RECs unable to pass the biennial evaluation and comply with corrective action would no longer be able to operate. “It certainly is a possibility,” he said. “That’s what Congress determined in the HITECH legislation. They said everybody must pass.”

When asked what would happen in the event that a REC lost its funding for years 3 and 4, Kendall replied that ONC would follow federal grant rules to address situations where a REC isn’t awarded year 3 and 4 funding. "One possible solution would be that a neighboring REC absorbs the clients; however, strategies need to be developed on a case-by-case basis to ensure the best outcome for the providers receiving support,” he said.

Cycle 2 RECs, which include academic medical centers associated with the program, will be evaluated in March. Cycle 3 RECs will be evaluated in August.

Click here to view ONC's Program Information Notice detailing the REC biennial review process.

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