Partners HealthCare plans to award community health centers $90 million over the next 15 years under a new grant program, part of a broad push to strengthen Massachusetts primary care providers.
The state’s largest hospital and physician organization is launching the initiative with its newly acquired insurer, Neighborhood Health Plan, and is scheduled to announce it Monday.
In the first round of grants, it will give $4.25 million to 49 community health centers across the state to help them adopt immediate improvements, such as upgrading technology that tracks patients’ health and redesigning office procedures so caregivers can spend more time with patients.
The grant program comes at a crossroads for community health centers. The state’s new health care cost-control law and the federal health care law raise expectations for health centers as crucial and relatively inexpensive providers of basic medical and mental health care, particularly for low-income residents.
The 49 centers belong to the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers — a partner in the initiative — and care for 800,000 patients, about 70 percent of whom are on the government-funded Medicaid or Medicare insurance programs or have state-subsidized coverage.
At the same time, many health centers are struggling financially, in part because they don’t have many patients with private insurance, which generally pays higher fees than public programs. Twenty-one of 36 health centers that responded to a survey said their operating margins declined from 2010 to 2011, and 16 said they had deficits last year, according to the community health center league.
James W. Hunt Jr., chief executive, said so-called stimulus grants and other federal money have dried up and state public health grants have been cut, straining budgets further.
“That’s why the Partners grants become more important,’’ he said.
Matt Fishman, vice president for community health at Partners, said “most community health centers do not have the financial assets and the reserves to enable them to make significant investments in information technology and new buildings and the kinds of additional [improvements] they need to make to move forward.’’
Partners owns five community health centers, and is affiliated with 16 more. But any center can apply for the grants. The intention in the first year is for all 49 centers to get a share of the $4.25 million pot of money, based on their projects, Partners executives said.
The grants will help centers improve their computer systems, so they can produce more sophisticated quality-of-care reports for insurers and for internal use, such as those showing whether caregivers are helping diabetic patients control their blood sugar. This is increasingly important as more insurers and government payers are basing fees in part on quality measures.
Deborah Enos, chief executive of Neighborhood Health Plan, said health centers also need better technology to help them coordinate care for large groups of patients under so-called alternative payment methods.
The state’s health care law encourages these new payment systems, which include “global payments’’ that give providers a fixed amount of money to provide all needed care to groups of patients.
If they stay under budget, providers get to keep some of the savings; if they exceed the budget, they are penalized financially.
Medicaid also is expected to adopt these strategies to control cost, which will have a significant impact on health centers: They will need to have computer systems in place to track patients and their care.
Lori Abrams Berry, executive director of the Lynn Community Health Center, pointed out that these new types of payments are based partly on patients’ health status.
“If you have patients who are very high risk and have significant numbers of chronic conditions, it will cost more to take care of them, and you will get paid more,’’ she said.
But many health centers are at a disadvantage, she said, because they do not have the expertise to “code’’ for these conditions when they bill insurers. As a result, some of the grant money will be used to train staff.
Fishman said Partners set aside the $90 million because it believes in the mission of community health centers, but also because they are a significant part of Neighborhood Health Plan’s provider network.
“The more health centers are able to take cost-effective care of patients and improve their health, the better NHP will perform,’’ he said.