The College of Healthcare Information Management Executives and Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society are the latest industry groups to express their concerns regarding “leadership transitions” within the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT.

In a joint letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, CHIME and HIMSS warned that recent ONC staff changes “could have a detrimental effect on ONC’s role in HHS’s charge to positively transform our nation’s health system,” referring to the “exodus of most of ONC’s senior leadership” including the recent naming of National Coordinator for Health IT Karen DeSalvo, M.D., as Acting Assistant Secretary for Health to help with the Obama administration’s Ebola response effort.

“Health IT is a dynamic field; to successfully address the needs of patients, providers, and developers, ONC’s leadership team must be in-place over the next two years,” states the letter to Burwell. “Such constancy will pay huge dividends in navigating all the changes that must occur for positive transformation. The combination of skills and focus is paramount; without it, we question whether our nation can successfully address the next challenging level of Meaningful Use and the delivery reforms required in the Affordable Care Act.”

While applauding Burwell’s decision to utilize DeSalvo’s “unique skills to address the current Ebola threat,” CHIME and HIMSS cautioned that they only support her appointment as the Assistant Secretary for Health if it is intended to be for a short duration with DeSalvo quickly returning to full-time leadership of ONC. “A full-time National Coordinator must be in-place in time for ONC’s review of all comments received from the public on the Interoperability Roadmap v1.0,” the groups assert. “If Dr. DeSalvo is going to remain as the Acting Assistant Secretary for Health with part-time duties in health IT, we emphasize the need to appoint new ONC leadership immediately that can lead the agency on the host of critical issues that must be addressed.”

At a Nov. 4 meeting of the HIT Policy Committee meeting, ONC announced that DeSalvo will remain chair of the committee. Paul Tang, vice chair of the committee, also said that she will work with Acting National Coordinator Lisa Lewis in “guiding” ONC. However, CHIME and HIMSS make the case that it isn’t enough to have DeSalvo working part-time on “several critical IT issues that need to be addressed promptly.”

The American Medical Association also recently expressed its concerns that DeSalvo’s departure from ONC, in addition to those of several other senior staff including the Deputy National Coordinator for Health IT Jacob Reider, M.D., would create a “significant leadership gap which could jeopardize the growing momentum around interoperability.”

With the departure of chief nursing officer Judy Murphy last month and Reider and ONC’s chief science officer Doug Fridsma, M.D., leaving this month, CHIME and HIMSS urged HHS to “fill all ONC leadership positions as soon as possible with well-respected leaders who possess a combination of clinical training and practice, clinical and business informatics expertise, a clear vision for IT’s role in enabling healthcare transformation, and experience in public policy.”  

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