Blue Cross backs digital records

N.C. insurer and Allscripts will offer clinics a free upgrade to electronic data and prescriptions.

jmurawski@newsobserver.comSeptember 29, 2011 

The state's biggest insurance company is offering to buy costly software for more than 750 doctors and 39 free clinics in North Carolina to help them switch from paper to electronic medical records.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina announced the $23 million program Wednesday in collaboration with Allscripts, a Chicago company that employs more than 1,100 in Raleigh and is investing $8 million in the program.

The two companies have planned more than a dozen promotional sessions around the state next month to recruit doctors into the program. As part of the deal, Allscripts - which develops technology for electronic medical records - will get an exclusive opportunity to market its high-priced products to doctors on the Blue Cross network.

The coordinated push represents continued efforts to digitize the nation's health care system. Some physicians, particularly small practices, have been slow to adopt the technology because of the expense. Allscripts' software can cost $30,000 per doctor to install and $2,000 a year for support services.

"The information technology that enables that coordination can be as important to a person's health as any therapeutic breakthrough," said Blue Cross CEO J. Bradley Wilson. "That technology is expensive, and getting everyone to use it in the same way is a big challenge."

Executives at both companies said that using digital medical records will reduce errors, flag dangerous drug interactions and prevent unnecessary hospitalizations. The technology also gives medical professionals remote access to a patient's medical history; for example, if a Raleigh resident has an emergency in Asheville, doctors and nurses in that city could quickly access the patient's vital records.

Blue Cross officials say they expect to recoup their $15 million investment in the program by reducing inefficiencies, duplications and other waste that typically drive up medical costs by 20 percent. They expect the Allscripts software to reduce unnecessary tests and procedures, and to recommend generic drugs and cheaper treatment options.

Blue Cross officials said those savings wouldn't automatically translate to a 20 percent cut in premiums, but would help the company manage spiraling health care costs.

"Instead of continuing to raise the cost of care, we're addressing the issue of how to control it," said H. Brent Sanders, Allscripts' vice president of payer markets.

The Allscripts-Blue Cross program will provide a financial incentive to doctors on top of a multibillion-dollar stimulus program launched last year by the Obama administration. The stimulus program pays up to $44,000 in subsidies to physicians and medical practices that change over to electronic medical records.

Fewer than half the state's independent primary-care physicians use electronic medical records, said Ann Lefebvre, associate director of statewide quality improvement at the N.C. Area Health Education Centers Program. The state-run extension program helps doctors adopt electronic records, and is participating in the Allscripts-Blue Cross effort.

The Blue Cross and Allscripts program will cover 85 percent of a doctor's cost of the technology and support services for five years. It will cover 100 percent of the cost for a free clinic that serves the uninsured.

The companies made a presentation to Gary Greenberg, medical director at Urban Ministries Open Door Clinic in Raleigh, whose 100 volunteer doctors will benefit from the subsidized digital-records technology.

"The first and easiest use of an electronic record is that things don't get lost," he said. "I'm very grateful someone is funding, endorsing, teaching and installing these wonderful tools."

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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