State officials have pledged funding and coordinated support to help expand the use of electronic health records among some 120 community-based organizations that address drug addiction, to improve and better integrate healthcare services for tens of thousands of New Jerseyans.
The Department of Health and the Department of Human Services recently announced they would provide $6 million to fund the rollout of new technology, which will allow providers to connect to a statewide system that links a growing number of hospitals, clinics and doctors. The departments will hold a webinar on May 1 with the New Jersey Innovation Institute, which is overseeing the project, so that interested behavioral-health organizations can learn more about the process.
Under Gov. Phil Murphy, state health officials have prioritized the use of data and new technology to target those most in need of services and to improve outcomes. They said the funding for electronic health records, or EHRs, will allow community-based providers to access more medical information about their patients quickly, and better enable them to connect these patients to long-term care for their addictions, or treatments for other diseases. (Most people with substance use disorders also suffer from other chronic health conditions.)
“The key winners here are patients with addiction. Equipping substance use clinics with modern electronic records, and connecting those records together into a single network with hospitals and other clinic types, allows clinicians access to the full scope of information when patients come in for care,” said health commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal. “This leads to better care decisions that can be life-saving — especially for patients that come in right after an overdose. It also allows case managers, navigators, and recovery coaches to coordinate care more easily.”
Overall, state officials are pushing to connect all healthcare providers electronically through the New Jersey Health Information Network, or NJHIN, a network of shared data run by the Innovation Institute. Elnahal told lawmakers during a budget hearing last week that the NJHIN now compiles data from some 6,0000 physicians, 91 nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, 65 acute-care hospitals, and three Federally Qualified Health Centers. (He also said all the state’s 72 hospitals will need to be connected by July 2021 if they want to continue to receive state charity care funding.)
Struggling to get money for new technology
Despite the benefits involved, many of the roughly 200 community-based behavioral healthcare providers that contract with the state have struggled to find the money to invest in new technology. Six in 10 reported needing new or upgraded systems to link to the NJHIN, according to the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, which is working with state officials and the Innovation Institute on the expansion. Many are nonprofits that already find it difficult to cover their regular monthly costs, and some have experienced multi-million-dollar state funding cuts in recent years.
“Prompt and secure exchange of health information among healthcare providers is key to delivering quality health care. For too long, there hasn’t been the same focus and investment in the technology capacity of substance use disorder treatment providers as there has been for other providers,” said Carole Johnson, DHS commissioner. “As part of our comprehensive strategy to combat the opioid epidemic, the Murphy Administration is changing that by investing in electronic health records for behavioral health care providers.”
Murphy pledged $100 million to address opioid addiction in his latest budget proposal, which must be approved by lawmakers by July 1, with an estimated $13 million to be directed toward technology in particular; he included a similar investment in the current budget year. But despite a marked decrease in prescribing practices related to pharmaceutical opiates, and growing treatment capacity, tens of thousands of New Jerseyans are still unable to get the help they need; last year, some 3,000 residents died of drug-related issues.
“The fact is we all know there is a national opioid crisis,” said Tomas Gregorio, the Innovation Institute’s senior vice president. “In New Jersey, one of the biggest hurdles to combating this epidemic is the ability to share patient information between healthcare providers. Promoting secure interoperability between providers’ electronic health records via the NJHIN is one of the most effective tools for delivering critical information when needed most.”
Regardless of the need, limitations in federal statutes have generally prevented the behavioral-health providers from accessing funding or incentive programs designed to expand the use of EHRs, state officials said. This led the state to start its own effort to promote interoperability within this group. (However, the state funding is not available to organizations that offer mental health services alone, without addiction treatment, raising concerns for some that more than five dozen providers might be excluded from this source of support.)
“Substance use treatment providers are finally going to receive a much-needed financial boost to assist them with adopting and implementing electronic health record systems,” said June Noto, NJAMHAA’s vice president of information technology and other services. “NJAMHAA is excited to be a part of this new incentive program to advance providers to the next level of care coordination and to be a part of promoting interoperability.”