Stephen Lieber, president and CEO of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, looked tired but sounded pleased with the outcome of the trade association’s annual convention in Chicago, HIMSS’ hometown.
Despite the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the HIMSS show, according to unaudited figures, drew about 27,500 attendees, down about 5% from the record 29,100 the show drew to sunny Orlando, Fla., last year, which was well before the nation’s economic storm broke this fall. The numbers were well ahead of the 24,700 or so who attended the 2007 show in New Orleans.
Offsetting the economy was the American Recovery and Reconciliation Act of 2009, signed into law by President Barack Obama in February, which by some estimates contains as much as $35 billion in federal dollars directed toward healthcare information technology spending.
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“We had more provider organizations represented here than we’ve ever had,” Lieber said. “What else could you attribute it to? It’s the stimulus. Do we have a history of good educational programming? Sure. Do we have a real good reputation? Sure. But they (providers) knew they had to pick up whatever intelligence they could this week.” And that understanding of what the stimulus act held in store for them came not just from the educational sessions—government officials were somewhat limited in what they could say, since Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, HHS secretary nominee, has not yet passed through Senate vetting and been sworn in—but by “sitting across the coffee table” at breaks during the show, exchanging ideas and information with IT industry peers, Lieber said.
One anxiety expressed by several healthcare IT aficionados before and during the show this year is that the advent of federal funds for IT purchases and the relatively narrow window of availability for grant funding specified by the stimulus act could cause a stampede to purchase EHRs and outstrip the vendors' ability to train buyers and install the systems.
“It is a concern,” Lieber said. “Is it a crippling concern? No. There is a long history of IT on the inpatient side. The real challenge is going to be on the physicians, on the ambulatory-care side. Practices of one to three physicians, they don’t have an IT person. They’re not going to hire an IT person.” But Lieber said, “I believe, first of all, we’re going to see various modules of applications that meet the (stimulus act funding) criteria, ASP models that will allow for fairly wide distribution with fewer people.”
In addition, Lieber said, many of the vendors, such as General Electric Co. and Siemens, have long offered system financing, while others will be adding it.
“Allscripts just announced a financing program for its buyers this week at the show,” he said. “It makes sense. It’s like buying a $40,000 car. It’s a significant amount of money. They’re going to look for financing options.
Hopefully, the financing options will lengthen the time frame for purchasing EHR systems before the first payments under the stimulus act kick in, Lieber said. Depending on HHS rulemaking, which is yet to come, first payments under the stimulus act could be made as soon as 2011.
“If everybody buys at the same time, we have much more of an issue,” he said.
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