Amy Andres is chair of the Ohio Health Information Partnership. She was interviewed for HIStalk by Dr. Gregg Alexander.
You have a diverse background. What do you bring to the table for OHIP’s (Ohio Health Information Partnership) Health Information Exchange and Regional Extension Center projects?
I know that a lot of people refer to my background working in the health IT industry, both at Allscripts and for CVS ProCare. I did some work for some software development companies.
Honestly, in this particular project, I think the area where I can be most helpful is my background and experience in the public sector. Bringing people together who may have diverse agendas or may be in a competitive situation, or an adversarial situation, and helping them come together for something that’s for the common good for everybody to cooperate in that environment.
I’ve had some experience with that, both at the Department of Education and also at the Department of Insurance. We have a lot of people with a lot of health IT experience at the table, and although I have it, I think the thing that I bring to the table is helping bring everybody together and see what the long-term good can come out of this particular effort.
OHIP is a public/private partnership. Maybe you could explain that give an elevator pitch on what OHIP does.
The thinking when this project kicked off was that there were the two main funding streams from the ARRA funding. One of those funding streams was intended for states to apply for those funds, and that was to support constructing a health information exchange. The other funding stream was designed for the regional extension centers.
I think the way the feds thought about it originally was they would have this patchwork throughout the country. Not necessarily within state borders, but just throughout the country, there’d be a support system to help physicians adopt EHRs.
The way we thought about it is two-fold. One, it doesn’t seem like a great idea to have one group working on implementing the support mechanism for the physicians and another group building the system that they’ll be connecting to. It really made sense to bring all of those things together. The federal grant requirements allowed for the states to delegate the authority to apply for the HIE grant if they chose to do so.
What we did in Ohio is said, let’s reach out to the different stakeholder groups that truly are going to be the main participants of not only constructing this, but managing it long-term, and let’s all come together under one organization and do this together. For that reason, the Ohio Hospital Association, the Ohio State Medical Association, the Ohio Osteopathic Association, and the State of Ohio started in talks. BioOhio, who was already a non-profit entity and did some work in the space, also came to the table and offered up help to us get started and help us form such a public/private partnership.
Within a few months’ time, we really pulled that together and had those five entities get started with things. Then, in the fall after we applied for the grants and it became clear that we were going to be receiving some form of funding, we expanded to a full 15-member board that includes payers, behavioral health, federally-qualified health centers … We have consumer advocacy perspective, hospital members, and more, just really trying to bring together a diverse group that could not only give us the perspective for decision-making, but really help pull their communities together along with this process.
Are the other Regional Extension Centers (RECs) across the country working similarly? If not, how do they differ?
We’re not completely unique, but pretty close. I’d say the closest organization to us is a group in New York. Other than that, you mostly have the RECs and the HIE grants being made separately. We have had some feedback from some of the other RECs that that’s already starting to cause them some problems.
We’re one of the largest RECs. In most cases, you didn’t have a whole state form as a group. One thing I will mention about the regional extension center side is OHIP originally applied to cover the entire state of Ohio. So did an organization in the Cincinnati area called HealthBridge. HealthBridge covers the Cincinnati region, also part of Kentucky and a southeastern segment of Indiana. So they took their existing marketplace, both an HIE and they do REC-type services. They applied as well.
So what the feds ended up doing is they ended up reducing our grant slightly and awarding HeatlhBridge as well. For Ohio, it was a good thing because we ended up with substantially more funding, so it requires some level of coordination between OHIP and HealthBridge, which is not a problem. We’ve known those folks for years, have worked with them for years, and on a weekly basis have calls to make sure that we’re staying on the same page.
That’s one aspect that’s a little different, but for the most part, having all of one state covered by a REC is not common. Having it coupled with the HIE, I think there’s only one other circumstance. I guess Wisconsin, I believe is also that way. Other than that, it’s split up.
Is this the uniqueness that you mentioned one of the reasons you think OHIP received such a large chunk of the first-round funds?
I get that question a lot. Lots of people ask, “Who do you know in high places to receive this award?” I have to say this wasn’t a lobbying effort. The effort, really, just stood on its own of the model that we presented.
I do think that it helped that the administration found, and the stakeholders on the physician side came together and agreed to use, some funding that was leftover from a previous program to put up as a state match for the federal dollars in a time of a very tight budget. It was unheard of that entities would come up with that level of money for a match. I think that helps, that we were showing that we were committed to it as well.
I think the real reason that the feds gave us such a strong award is I think they see the merit in the model of having all of the stakeholders’ representation groups sitting on the board, and the level of involvement, not just rhetoric, actually, truly becoming involved. I think the feds recognize this is a model that could actually work and be propagated throughout the country. I think that they made a decision to make an investment in this model to see if it works.
EHR adoption and use timetables are exquisitely fast — very accelerated. Do you think that’s going to increase the odds of making bad decisions or failed implementations as the RECs across the country try to roll this stuff out?
There’s no doubt about it. It’s an extremely aggressive timetable. So aggressive, in fact, that some RECs … There’s definitely been some feedback and folks asking to adjust the timetables.
Here’s what personally I’ve observed in working with folks at the federal level. The interest to adjust timetables is not there. That’s going to stay, but what they have done is absolutely worked with us to try to remove the barriers that are getting in the way of getting there.
Although there was a lot of consternation, especially when everybody recognized at the same while we were in Washington that the timetable for this was really two years, not four years, I have to say that all of our board members — our initial five Board members were there — we didn’t have the same heart attack that some of the other folks had because we know our model. If any model’s going to get us there in this time period, it’s the one that we have.
Concerns over hasty decisions? Yes. When you speed up a project like this, that’s always a concern because you don’t have the time to run down every possibility and mitigate every single risk to meeting a successful project. When you’re in that situation, I think what you have to be open to is making adjustments once you recognize that perhaps a path that you were heading down may not have been the perfect path, and be willing to make adjustments as you go.
I think the other thing that’s key when you’re on this type of time period is to be really open and transparent with everybody about the risks of moving at this speed and establish trust with everybody so that when they see that maybe we made a decision that is not helpful in the process, that we’re willing to admit, yep, a change needs to be made and everybody moves on. I think that when you’re working at this pace, everybody’s got to be open and honest with each other and be willing to make adjustments when we realize they need to be made.
Some have expressed concerns that the RECs are not going to be transparent about how they’re making their decisions for choosing their partners, perhaps leaving some EHR vendors to be shut out. How do you address those concerns?
In our particular REC, our situation, we’re using a competitive process. As a matter of fact, that competitive process is going on right now. We’ve just released an RFP for preferred EHR vendors. We don’t know exactly how many we’re going to select, but we do know it will be more than three and probably less than ten. What we’re trying to get to is allowing for a manageable implementation and pricing that’s attractive for physicians right now.
Probably even most importantly, we’re looking for a commitment from vendors to Ohio. Right now, these EHR vendors, I’m sure, are expressing these concerns. They also have a market of the entire country that they’re trying to grab right now. As a group that has responsibility to make sure that this project doesn’t fall apart, we need to know that they’re not going to overextend themselves in our market, and that they’re going to be here. Once they get started here, they need to finish the job here and really be around to support it long-term.
It’s important for us that we work with vendors that are willing to make a commitment. We’re going to hold up our end of the bargain and do some things to support their efforts as well. There will be, absolutely — and there is already underway — a competitive process and several competent individuals scoring those responses to make our selection. If you’re an EHR vendor and you want to operate in Ohio and you’re not one of the preferreds, you’ll still absolutely be able to operate in this market so long as you meet the ONC certification standards. But we feel it’s important to use a competitive process to select a group of vendors that are willing to make a commitment to Ohio.
Are you saying the selection process is a transparent?
Oh, absolutely. Even though we’re not a state entity, even in the state system — which has probably a very high degree of transparency in the process — while the actual competition is going on, that information’s closed because if that information was released during the actual competitive process, it would give people an unfair competitive advantage. But after the process is completed, all of that information will be made public.
Will there be enough qualified people to help with the implementation, support, and training for all these REC projects? What kind of employees are you going to need with what skill sets and where do you think you’re going to find all these folks?
I have to tell you that that is probably, of everything that is happening within this project, that’s the thing that keeps me awake at night the most. The federal government awards grants to help with that over the long term, and in this project long term means three or four years out. That will be wonderful for long-term sustainability of workforce, but the problem that we have is that the mechanism that they contemplated to implement that through the two-year and four-year colleges does not produce a workforce when we need it, which is during this two-year push. We’re going to need it long term, but we really need some of those individuals right now.
When we were in Washington, it became very clear that the timing of that was going to be a problem. So when we got back to Columbus, the first phone call I made was to the Department of Development and the Board of Regents to see if we couldn’t put together a program for Ohio over the summer to produce, at least, the workforce that’s needed for implementation right now. We met with those folks, as well as a federal program that runs through Job and Family Services called the One-Stops. It’s a retraining program.
We’ve got a full team of people from each of the regional partners, from all of the two-year colleges in the state, the Board of Regents, the Department of Development, and the One-Stops. We’re putting together a very intense summer program to train individuals to do the office assessment and workflow support. Then, those individuals will either be employed by the regional partners — the regional entities that are part of our REC — or, they’ll be employed by the vendors. But, we know we need to create that workforce in Ohio. There’s some of that workforce, but not enough to get this job done and it’s a country-wide problem.
As we’re speaking about this, the other thing that we are contemplating is that we don’t want the EHR vendors coming in here bringing people from where they’re headquartered. We really want the workforce in Ohio to be Ohioans, and be people that stay here and support this long effort as systems are implemented. In part of our EHR process when we’re talking about vendors to partner with, one of those requirements would be that they’re hiring Ohioans to do this work. Our role in this is to make sure that there are competent Ohioans to hire for this process.
Every aspect of this project is truly going to have to be a partnership with everybody holding up their end of the bargain. I do, personally, see a lot of jobs being created out of this project. It’s not really something that’s talked about a lot compared to a lot of the other stimulus programs. What more is talked about is the tight timelines and bringing this up, bringing health information exchange structure and EHR adoption up to speed. But, out of all of this, jobs will absolutely be created. We just want to make sure that those jobs go to Ohioans.
A common theme within OHIP is the discussion of community. Why do you see that as being important, and how is the OHIP model addressing that approach?
I think that the OHIP model itself is the epitome of establishing a community around this.
Yesterday I had a speaking engagement with HIMSS. The discussion ended up turning into an hour of questions and answers, in a good way. People were very engaged. They were very excited.
I was there for another hour afterwards just answering individual questions and talking to folks. One woman said to me, “You know, this reminds me of a movement.” She’s like, “This is like you’ve got people coming out of the woodwork looking to volunteer the time and pitch in.” She said, “This truly has the makings of a movement.” When she said that I was thinking to myself, she’s absolutely right.
This is a situation where a lot of people who have wanted this to happen for quite some time see that if this is going to happen, this is it. This is our chance. People on a macro level across Ohio are coming together. What I think we need to make sure happens from this point is that same level of grassroots movement starts to propagate at the individual, local communities level. I think that that is the key to getting this done in not only an aggressive time period, but with less money than truly is needed to ultimately implement this thing. We have to contemplate a different model than the model that’s been used up to this point that, frankly, hasn’t been able to get us there.
The model that not only I believe, but several individuals who are working within OHIP believe, is getting that community level of involvement — getting physicians within their community working together on this and leaning on each other. The idea of bringing together groups of single practices, bringing those individuals together as a cohort and working through this together, it makes it more cost-effective for us to support that effort in that manner. But even more importantly, it gives them a peer group to work with as they’re working through their own problems. Certainly they can identify with each other going through this at the same time. We absolutely think that’s going to be the key to success in this project.
The next step is really bringing those communities together and helping them not only understand where we’re going with this, but understand that there’s support to help their community.
Are there any other points you’d like to bring up?
I guess just the final point, and perhaps I have spoke about it throughout this discussion, but this is one of those situations where you don’t see something like this very often. Where people who normally either are very strong competitors or have very different positions on how they see the world and how the healthcare system should work, or how health information technology should work — to see all of these individuals come together, not just rhetoric, not just the way that they’re speaking to each other, but truly their actions are showing that this is a partnership.
I’d say in my 20-plus-year career, I have never seen anything like this. It’s quite an honor to be involved and to be participating in this. I think a lot of others feel that way, and I think that’s what’s going to bring us to the dedication that’s needed to get this monumental task done on what is a very aggressive timeline. It’s just a pleasure working with folks on this project.