WOONSOCKET – U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius helped kick off a model program in health care reform Friday during a ceremony at Thundermist Health Center.
Sebelius was in town to launch the $15.9 million Beacon Communities program, designed to reduce costs and improve health care outcomes by using computers to manage information better. It's just one of 17 different Beacon demonstration programs HHS has established across the nation at a cost of some $220 million, money that comes from the federal stimulus package championed by President Obama.
The state's share of the funds, distributed in the form of competitive grants, went to the non-profit Rhode Island Quality Initiative, which will oversee the program. The funds will trickle down to 28 private practitioners, consortiums and clinics, including the Blackstone Valley Community Health Center in Pawtucket and Thundermist. The beneficiaries were chosen because they've already made substantial progress toward achieving the goals of the program, said Laura Adams, the president of RIQI.
“Rhode Island is the perfect size for innovation, and we look forward to working with our partner physicians practices to make a real impact on health care quality, cost and population health,” she said. “We are delighted to work with our partners to build upon our state's existing strengths and infrastructure to make Rhode Island the safest, highest quality and most affordable place to receive health care in the nation.”
The initiative will focus on improving results in four areas – diabetes care, smoking, depression treatment and overuse of hospitals and emergency rooms.
A who's who of power-brokers and policymakers in health care shared speaking privileges for the event, which drew over a hundred guests from around the state. The platform included U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and his new House colleague, Congressman David Cicilline, just three days on the job. State Health Insurance Commissioner Chris Koller, newly-minted State Secretary of Health and Human Services Steven Costantino and Thundermist's Executive Director Maria Montanaro also shared the lectern with Adams and Sebelius.
Thundermist was honored with the privilege of hosting the event because it is regarded as a trailblazer in implementing practices that are designed to improve health care by managing patient information and other medical records more efficiently.
Indeed, Obama's point-woman for health care reform opened her remarks by praising Thundermist as “one of the coolest places in the country for the delivery of health care.” She also had kind words for Whitehouse, who championed the Beacon program as a component of the federal stimulus package, otherwise known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. He was also instrumental in bringing together a group of hospitals, health insurers and business leaders in 2001 to establish RIQI for the purpose of improving the health care delivery system.
And the organization is doing a praiseworthy job, said Sebelius.
“These were very, very competitive projects, so you are among the best of the best throughout the country,” she said. “The work you're doing is cutting edge and very critical.”
One of the central tenets of the state's version of the Beacon initiative echoes a theme Obama had sounded often and loudly during all the congressional infighting that eventually gave rise to the Affordable Care Act: The cost of health care could be pared down markedly if only the waste could be squeezed out of it – much of which is the result of antiquated, duplicative record-keeping systems that are built around individual providers instead of patients.
Sebelius said it is hard to imagine banks or successful industries surviving in the marketplace today without optimizing the use of information-management technologies to cut costs and increase efficiencies.
“Unfortunately,” she said, “health care lags way behind that.”
As House Republicans officially reclaimed the majority in their legislative chamber this week, they have vowed to make repealing Obama's health care reform their top priority, a move Sebelius derided as “such a step backwards, such a step in the wrong direction.”
The pioneers are organizations like RIQI, she said, who are pointing the way in health care. That's why HHS is encouraging their work with additional funding. She said, “It's not an accident that these are called Beacon Communities. This is about shining a bright light on the best practices in the country.”
Whitehouse, whom Sebelius hailed as a key architect of Obama's health care reform legislation, said health care costs are rising so fast that the country is now “burning a stunning 17.6 percent” of the gross national product on health care costs every year. Beacon programs will map a plan for implementing reforms that will yield enough savings in the future so the country can pay for health care without attacking benefits.
Cicilline said that even though he'd been a congressman just three days, it's already plain that one of the principal fights he'll face as a Democrat will be to preserve the gains the last Congress made in health care reform. Unless that happens, he said, hundreds of thousands of citizens in Rhode Island alone will face a smorgasbord of rollbacks in health care coverage.
“The fight to protect the progress we've made in health care is something that's continuing,” he said.