Change at the top at ONC not expected to deter HIT momentum

As Karen DeSalvo, MD, finishes her reign today as the national coordinator for health information technology to assume a full-time position as acting assistant secretary for health, the only surprise is that she did not make the move earlier.

That’s the view of David Muntz, a former deputy national coordinator at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology from January 2012 to October 2013.


“Dr. DeSalvo has been doing a great job juggling two very important jobs, both of which are more than full-time,” says Muntz, who also served as CIO at Texas Health Resources and Baylor Health Care System, and now leads Muntz & Company LLC, a consultancy. “Only someone with her personal strength and commitment to purpose could do so effectively.” DeSalvo has been in both roles for nearly two years, since late 2014.

Now, the national coordinator position, effective on August 15, moves to Vindell Washington, MD, who has served as principal deputy national coordinator at ONC.

“Dr. Washington’s appointment provided some much needed relief,” Muntz adds. “I think it was prudent based on his track record to turn the reins over to him now to allow them both to work with full focus and authority on the important issues in both areas of responsibility. They both have enviable track records, which bodes well for the future.”

Chuck Christian, a long-time healthcare CIO and now vice president at the Indiana Health Information Exchange, has only met the new coordinator once since he joined ONC, but likes what he’s seen. “In reading Dr. Washington’s comments on the ONC website and listening to some of his remarks, I’m encouraged that he will continue the work with his own leadership style.”

What that future holds, however, is murky. A new presidential administration comes in during January, and over time the new occupants in the West Wing of the White House will determine who stays from the previous administration.

That DeSalvo left ONC now is not alarming, says Pamela McNutt, CIO at Methodist Health System in Texas. “ONC has been in flux for some time, and, as it is a political appointment, it could all change in 2017,” she adds.

DeSalvo’s resignation is not surprising for another reason, as she served two years and seven months in the position; five previous national coordinators generally served in the role for shorter periods of time.

Karen DeSalvo has been an awesome national coordinator,” echoes Marc Probst, CIO at Intermountain Healthcare and the current board chair for the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME). “At a time when the only comments around MU and the FACA (federal advisory committees) programs were uniquely negative and critical, Dr. DeSalvo was able to come in and focus the federal efforts in a positive direction and rally the HIT participants to move forward.

“Her intent has always been about improving healthcare through the use of IT and I never saw a single instance of her making decisions for her advantage or political purpose. I have been honored to know and work with Karen,” Probst added. “Vindell seems to be a good leader with positive vision. It is encouraging to see that even within the very strange political climate of DC, and the small window of time before major changes in Washington, he is working hard to sprint in an effort to keep the positive momentum.”

Two health IT trade associations issued statements on the ONC change in leadership.

CHIME, which represents CIOs and other health IT leaders, said DeSalvo was collaborative and instrumental in advancing the field and making interoperability and health information exchange a national priority. “We look forward to continuing that collaborative approach with Vindell Washington as he takes the helm at ONC,” CHIME’s statement said.

Health IT Now, a coalition of patient groups, provider organizations, employers and insurers, said, “We at Health IT Now have greatly enjoyed working with Dr. DeSalvo on the issues of high importance to our members—ensuring health IT products work best for patients and providers and once and for all ending information blocking.”

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