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Changing of the Guard at ONC, Interoperability Remains Focus

Two federal advisory committees advising ONC have shut down and the federal agency has a new ONC chief.

ONC says goodbye to the Health IT Policy and Standards Committees.

Source: HHS

By Kyle Murphy, PhD

- March went out like a lion at ONC, with the shuttering of the Health IT Policy and Standards Committees and naming of a new National Coordinator.

Goodbye Health IT FACAs

“I wanted to take a quick opportunity to just personally thank you all. It will be a day full of thanks and that will be a good thing. I’m incredibly grateful for not just your presence but for your commitment. You are all incredibly talented and you’re all incredibly accomplished people — and you’re busy folks,” Acting National Coordinator Jon White, MD, said during a combined meeting of the two committees on March 30, the last meeting of both groups.

The Health IT Policy and Standards Committees were created by Federal Advisory Committee Act and charged by American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of in advising ONC on health IT matters. However, a provision of the 21st Century Cures Act replaces the FACAs with the HIT Advisory Committee.

In his opening remarks last Thursday, White assured members of both committees from the both the private and public sector that their work on health IT adoption would continue under the new leadership of HHS, namely Secretary Tom Price, MD.

“Of course as you know, we have a new secretary, Dr. Price. And I am pleased to be able to tell you that the good Dr. Price has an unwavering commitment to improving interoperability, using health IT to get to a better healthcare delivery system and for better health for the nation and reduce the burden that the use of these information systems has for our clinicians,” he added.

White’s comments were followed by an introduction on the newly appointed Assistant Secretary for Health Technology John Fleming, Jr., MD, who represented Louisiana in the House of Representative for nearly a decade. Fleming’s appointment is one of many changes at ONC.

Whereas Fleming’s comments focused on his medical background, White noted that Fleming would be working at part of ONC to achieve goals for health IT usability and interoperability, noting that the new administration and the federal agency are “pointed in the same direction” and keyed in on implementing provisions of the 21st Century Cures Act pertaining to health IT.

In his closing remarks, HITPC Co-chair and IBM Watson Health Vice President and Chief Health Transformation Officer Paul Tang, MD, praised the outgoing committees for bringing the country’s healthcare industry into the digital age.

“Regardless of where we are now, we’ve gone from zero to sixty in five years in a sense. Before HITECH, three percent had what was called a comprehensive EHR. None of those, incidentally, would have passed Meaningful Use Stage 1,” he explained. “Sometimes we’re struggling with the things we have, but we have it and we now have data to even deal and systems to improve.

According to Tang, the US is now a leader in the use of health IT to improve care coordination and health outcomes.

“There’s a lot for this combined committee to be proud of,” he continued. Everybody was in for the country. People were wanting to do the right thing.”

A New National Coordinator

Now for the other big news at the federal agency. Little is being said officially at the moment, but ONC has a new leader.

According to multiple reports, the former Vice President and CMO for Siemens Healthcare, Donald Rucker MD, is the newest National Coordinator. The federal agency is mum on the announcement for the time being; however, an HHS website providing details about federal employees now lists Rucker as ONC chief.

Rucker holds a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania as well as MBA and MS from Stanford University, a combination of degrees common to the most recent leaders of ONC. Additionally, he holds a professorship in clinical emergency medicine and biomedical informatics at the Ohio State University since 2013.

More to come as details emerge.

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