CHIME Interview Series: Paul Brannan, Alabama Health Information Technology Coordinator, Alabama Medicaid Agency

Paul Brannan, Alabama HIT Coordinator

Paul Brannan, Alabama HIT Coordinator, Alabama Medicaid Agency

A champion in the Medicaid arena and now in health information exchange, Paul Brannan, Health Information Technology Coordinator and Director of Alabama’s HIE, One Health Record®, knows how to make quite the connection. His advice to those in the HIE startup/entrepreneurship space is the same he follows himself: create solutions that are easily usable in the provider’s workflow. One Health Record® is intentionally free to its providers and has gained flexibility with how they send records outbound, based on what the system is ready to consume. They are also willing to customize their interface with the provider’s EMR system. No EMR? No problem. One Health Record® provides a portal through a secure website where you can see the longitudinal record of care. Brannan’s future initiatives reflect this provider-centric way of thinking: from working to integrate with Public Health so One Health Record® can become a connection hub for their providers, to reestablishing their connection with Georgia’s HIE, One Health Record® has a robust value proposition and it shows.

CHIME Fall CIO Forum provides valuable education programming, tailored specifically to meet the needs of CIOs and other healthcare IT executives. Justin Campbell, of Galen Healthcare Solutions, had the opportunity to attend this year’s forum and interview CIOs from all over the country. Here is the next interview in the series:

Key Insights

We’re in the process of expanding into providing a patient portal for patient’s to be able to see consolidated views of their records from the providers who participate in our exchange.

In the state of Alabama, we find a lot of our provider community is rural in nature and may not have a high-profit margin, so we want to be as low cost to them as we possibly can.

The move to value-based purchasing in the healthcare arena is going to make the information that we have, and its ability to improve treatment, of greater value to our large-scale payers.

If providers don’t have an EMR or they’re not happy with how the information being sent is viewed from the EMR, we also provide a portal where providers can access a patient’s longitudinal record of care.

What we find with a lot of our smaller providers is that, without an extensive IT staff, the cost and difficulty of maintaining all the different connections they encounter is becoming prohibitive.

Most providers are still thinking in a fee for service mindset, where they’re looking at the volume of healthcare. If a HIE adds time and effort to the treatment of the patient, there’s going to be resistance even if the HIE adds value.

Campbell: Can you give me a little bit of background on yourself, your organization, and your current role within the organization.

Brannan: My historical background has been with the Medicaid Agency. I’ve been with the Alabama Medicaid Agency for 20 years. I first came on board in the tech support area. In the late 90s, when we were looking to implement a claim processing system, I was drafted to be a part of the team who developed the RFP and did the implementation.  As a result, I was promoted to Deputy MMIS Coordinator. After a couple of years, my boss moved on to another opportunity, I had the chance to take over our Medicaid Claims Processing System as MMIS Coordinator.  Our Commissioner later gave me the opportunity to direct our Project Management Office because of the project management rigor we were using in the MMIS area.  Two years ago I was asked to lead the State’s health information exchange and was named by our governor as the State HIT Coordinator.

Now our HIE’s background: Medicaid has been interested in the electronic health record market for many years. We started under transformation grants, establishing a free EMR for Medicaid providers, focused on monitoring certain chronic conditions. That morphed, when the Affordable Care Act was passed, taking advantage of the funding by helping providers purchase their own EMR system through Meaningful Use as well as establishing a statewide health information exchange. In Alabama,  One Health Record® is the only HIE in the state.  We offer services for all Alabama providers, not just Medicaid.

We’re in the process of expanding into providing a patient portal for patients to be able to see consolidated views of their records from the providers who participate in our exchange, as well as implementing ADT alerting.

Campbell: I appreciate the thorough background. I noted on your website that as of January 31st you’re at just over 2 million patients, 87 connected facilities, 13 connected hospitals, and over a million registered documents. That’s pretty impressive. Tell me a little about the sustainability and, quite frankly, the solvency model for the HIE. I know with public HIEs, some of them are funded through grants, others have a business model centered around the value proposition they’re offering. If you could elaborate on that, that would be helpful.

Brannan: We have intentionally been free to our providers, at least as far as what we charge, to drive adoption. In the state of Alabama, we find a lot of our provider community is rural in nature and doesn’t have a high-profit margin, so we want to be as low cost to them as we possibly can. This means we’ve been funded to date by a combination of: federal funding, state funding through the Medicaid agency, as well as grants from the Department of Public Health, and Blue Cross Blue Shield—which is Alabama’s major insurance provider. Long term, for sustainability, we’re looking at several different funding models.  We feel that sustainability will come from a combination of value to our large-scale providers and our major hospitals in the state providing a large part of the funding. Lesser amounts will likely come from our individual providers, our primary care doctors, and others, with some funding coming from our insurance community as well.  The move to value-based purchasing in the healthcare arena is going to make the information that we have available, and its ability to improve treatment, of greater value to our large-scale payers.  In Alabama, large scale payers make up a good portion of the population under Medicaid.  Therefore, we anticipate Medicaid funding being a part of the long-term solution, and we hope that our major insurers will see value in what we’re doing as well.

Campbell: In terms of the transactions that are taking place, you mentioned ADT’s for the patient portals, but what about for providers? What data do they have access to in the portals? What inbound transactions do you consume today?

Brannan: We can consume any of the ITI-based standards for incoming transactions, and as such we support patient registrations and queries for information.  We are fairly flexible in how we send things outbound based on what the target system is ready to consume. If they want a CCDA, we can do that. If they want a customized interface with their EMR system, as some of our large-scale providers do, we’re willing to work with their EMR vendor to implement that by breaking the CCDs into discrete data elements per standards. If all they’re ready for right now is purely a direct account, we are a HISP (Health Information Service Provider), so we can provide direct mailboxes for them as well. If they don’t have an EMR or they’re not happy with how the information we send is viewed from their EMR, we also provide a portal that they can go in to see the longitudinal record of care. That can be viewed through a secure website, and if their EMR system supports it, we can make that viewable as a window within their EMR system.

Campbell: Switching gears a bit, a lot of the HIEs are swimming in a deluge of data. Can you elaborate a bit on the governance process you use today to dictate data access? Is it federated at all?

Brannan: We are a hybrid. We have some providers who are very interested in having us store their data. For them, we have a data repository where we can store their records. However, we have several providers who feel strong ownership of their information and are not interested in it being stored in multiple locations. For those, we offer a more federated approach where we simply store the demographics along with the pointer information. That information then gets pulled on-demand, but it’s not stored, so it does not persist with us, it goes straight to the provider. We require everyone who is connected to our exchange to agree that they will only provide records for people that they’re actively treating and they will only pull those records for treatment purposes.

Campbell: Is there a particularly compelling use case that you can share, in terms of the HIE being used in the provider community, or more broadly, for public health purposes?

Brannan: The use cases that we support directly with a query-based exchange have a lot to do with emergency situations: someone’s away from their primary source of care, they’re on vacation or somewhere where their records are not easily accessible. We make it so that those records can be made accessible in an emergency.

We had an even more interesting use case recently where a provider referred to a specialist, and the specialist called to get the records. The people who had those records said ‘you need to get on One Health Record® so we can send them electronically, we’re trying to get out of the paper record business.’ Without us even having to contact that specialist, they were calling us saying ‘I’ve had a couple of people wanting us to get on One Health Record® so that we can quit this paper exchange.’ They were interested in what they needed to do to be a part of our exchange so they could remove the inefficiencies involved in sending paper records back and forth.

Campbell: That’s great. When people are coming to you, instead of you having to sell the value, that they’re being incentivized to do so, that’s when you know it’s working. I noted an article published in the Birmingham Medical News in December 2015, featuring Alabama One Health Record®, mentioned you were pursuing initiatives around immunizations and specifically alerting. Can you tell me about any progress or challenges you faced with that initiative?

Brannan: The only real drawback we’ve had in moving forward with those initiatives is getting approval from public health authorities to set it up. They want to make sure the information that is going to be shared is secure. We’re working with their leadership to hopefully make that happen soon because it is something we’ve had provider interest in. Once that occurs, what we envision happening, as part of our value-added service, is being a connection hub for all our providers. Right now, providers must maintain multiple connections. We want to simplify that for them by taking on the connection to Public Health so they can do immunizations reporting, cancer registry reporting, or any public health-related reporting, without having it as a separate connection. We’re even exploring, as a long-term possibility, establishing connections to insurers as well, to allow them to do eligibility inquiries and claim submissions.  What we find with a lot of our smaller providers is that, without an extensive IT staff, the cost and difficulty of maintaining all the different connections are becoming prohibitive. We’re trying to simplify that as part of our value-added proposition to our healthcare community.

Campbell: You hit the nail on the head there, as smaller groups just don’t have the resources. If you have an entity like the HIE it makes a lot of sense: the infrastructures is already there, let it do the heavy lifting and connect rather than having to make a major outlay and investment in IT.

Let’s talk about other initiatives that have your focus in this near term. There is seemingly a purchasing pause in the industry, at least in the provider community, where they’re trying to rationalize their existing infrastructure and investments. It’s not the days of money being thrown into the implementation of new technology via government incentives, but rather there’s a lot of rationalization occurring. That said, tell me what it’s like to operate as a HIE in this climate, and what initiatives that you might be facing in the next couple of months.

Brannan: We’re asking a provider to make an investment of time and for many a capital outlay. We are free but their EMR vendor will likely charge them for establishing the connection as well as charge an annual maintenance fee.  Before they make that kind of investment they want to know what’s in it for them. The obvious selling point for a HIE is having complete access to the record of the individual at the point of care. Part of what we’re marketing now, as more and more payers in the Alabama region are moving to some type of value-based reimbursement, is the importance of them being able to see what’s happening in the provider community and with other people who are treating the patients as well. Our value-add proposition is to provide any data they might need to help manage their population, as well as looking for opportunities to partner with them to improve healthcare practices in those hospitals.

Campbell: Absolutely, if you have access to the data, the power of analytics and machine learning applied to that data is very profound. Switching topics for a moment, has there been anything made aside from just the initial connection to GaHIN (Georgia Health Information Network) or is there active communication today? Was it merely a proof of concept or is it something used in practice to serve the two geographies?

Brannan: It has been used in practice and we’re looking to reestablish it. Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks of being a state entity is that as long as we’re under the state umbrella, we follow state procurement laws, which means we can’t purchase a system that other vendors use on a permanent basis. Instead, we have to periodically go out for bid.  Our HIE backend software had to go out for bid last year, and a new vendor won the bid, which meant we had to replace our HIE software. This required us to reestablish our Sequoia certification which was part of the underlying agreement we had with Georgia.  Because we are reestablishing that certification, we have had to temporarily cut off the connection with GaHIN. We are right on the brink of regaining that Sequoia certification – we expect that happening in the next few weeks – and Georgia has expressed interest in reestablishing the connection as soon as that happens.

It is a very important connection. We have people in the eastern part of the state, who see providers in Georgia. There are also populations who simply cross over to other states and have the need for medical care while they’re there and providers there need to see their records. So, that’s something we’re interested in reestablishing as soon as possible, but it’s not currently active today.

Campbell: I can appreciate that. It is a major forklift going from one major HIE platform to another

Brannan: We have providers actively using the new platform as it stands. We tried to make that cutover without causing any disruption to their current connections, making it as seamless as we can.

Campbell: And all the while you must be mindful to look at what’s in the queue in terms of integration that has yet to be developed. As such, I imagine there was some bifurcating of feeds that were occurring while you were working through that transition.

Brannan: Exactly. We had that going on for a good period of time making the transition as seamless as possible. Ultimately all our connected provider had to move to our new endpoint. It took them a little while to make that transition, depending on what their IT infrastructure looked like. We’ve been able to do it fairly painlessly. Most providers made the move with us, which is something that we’re very pleased with.

Campbell: Very good. Lastly, in closing, given your vast background on the Medicaid and HIE side, what have you learned over the years that you would like to impress on our audience of health IT entrepreneurs and startups. Has there been anyone, mentor or colleague, that’s impacted you? If there’s something you’ve learned in your career, or just based on your experience, and can share that story, that would be great.

Brannan: The key to working in the entrepreneur/startup space is making something that is usable in the provider’s workflow. That’s ultimately where the rubber is going to meet the road. As long as a HIE system is seen as an additional tax on the provider’s time, then it’s going to be difficult to get buy-in, no matter how much value it gives. Most providers are still thinking in a fee for service mindset, where they’re looking at maximizing the volume of patients treated. If what is being provided for them adds time and effort to the treatment of the patient, there’s going to be a resistance. Integrate what you’re doing into the workflow of the provider so that it works somewhat seamlessly or causes minimal disruption to what is already a busy workflow.  Most of the resistance we’ve seen comes from providers who say ‘well I see value in that, I just can’t afford to take an extra five minutes per patient. Because of the way my EMR looks at the records you provide, it requires me going to a whole other screen and making so many additional clicks.’  That’s part of the reason we’re willing to integrate into EMR systems for providers who have the wherewithal to support the cost and effort it takes for the EMR to integrate our records into their system.

About Paul Brannan
Paul serves as Alabama Health Information Technology Coordinator, where he is responsible for managing the $5 million HIT program for the state. He also serves as Director of One Health Record®, Alabama’s State Health Information Exchange.

Paul works with local, state, federal, and private partners to build collaboration with Alabama’s health providers, payers, and patients to improve health information exchange and promote better health outcomes. His vision is to see all Alabama stakeholders connected and securely exchanging data as appropriate to make Alabama a healthier state.

Paul is a graduate of Auburn University, holding a BS in Secondary Education.

About Justin Campbell
Justin is Vice President, Strategy, at Galen Healthcare Solutions. He is responsible for market intelligence, segmentation, business and market development and competitive strategy. Justin has been consulting in Health IT for over 10 years, guiding clients in the implementation, integration, and optimization of clinical systems. He has been on the front lines of system replacement and data migration is passionate about advancing interoperability in healthcare and harnessing analytical insights to realize improvements in patient care. Justin can be found on Twitter at @TJustinCampbell and LinkedIn.

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