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Federal grant to help fund Mass. health exchange

Massachusetts has contracted with Orion Health, a global health software company, to oversee development of a statewide network for hospitals and doctors to exchange electronic health records. With the help of a $17 million federal grant awarded in February, the state expects to begin connecting providers this fall.

Health exchanges, which are being developed in states across the country, are designed to allow hospitals, doctors, long-term care facilities, and others to share information about patients so that they can better coordinate care, reduce medical errors, and avoid unnecessarily repeating tests or treatments.

Orion, which has created similar systems in Maine, Scotland, Singapore, and elsewhere around the world, has agreed to work with the state for at least three years in contracts totalling up to about $13 million.


The first phase of the exchange is expected to launch this fall, with just a handful of organizations using software and a cloud-based system to send data on command from one organization to the other.

“Remove the fax machine -- that’s basically what this is about,” said Manu Tandon, the state health information technology coordinator. The exchange is expected to be available to other providers before the end of the year.

“It’s almost like the Massachusetts Turnpike,” Tandon said. “Anybody can travel on it.”

In 2013, the state will focus on developing the ability to collect information for measuring health care quality. In 2014 and 2015, Tandon said, the system will be advanced to allow users to search for information about their patients rather than simply receiving it from another provider.

All three phases are expected to cost a total of about $50 million, though that figure is a rough estimate, Tandon said.

Paul Viskovich, president of Orion’s North America operations, said the project should go smoothly in Massachusetts because many doctors and hospitals here already are familiar with electronic health records.


“There’s a lot of enthusiasm to use this throughout the state,” he said.

Nearly all states, including Massachusetts, use Orion products to transfer public health reporting data between state and federal agencies, Viskovich said. Users of the health exchanges must be credentialed by the company, which uses secure portals and data encryption to protect patient information, he said.

The exchange will “connect every payer, provider, and patient to a single technology backbone,” Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. JudyAnn Bigby said in a press release. “This will create the infrastructure providers and hospitals need to move towards a more integrated, global model of care.”

The exchange has developed from a successful partnership with the health care industry and others in the private sector, Tandon said. He pointed, as evidence, to a recent decision by the New England Healthcare Exchange Network, a group of payers and providers who designed a system for sharing administrative data, to forgo developing a clinical exchange in favor of using the state’s.

Still, success depends on doctors and others adopting electronic records. “Just because you build a highway doesn’t mean people will connect to it,” Tandon said.

The cost containment legislation passed Tuesday set aside $30 million -- apart from federal assistance that is also available -- to assist providers in bringing the electronic systems to their offices.

Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at cconaboy@boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @cconaboy.