On Nov. 13, CCHIT Chair Mark Leavitt announced his retirement. A physician with strong past ties to HIMSS, Leavitt had done much both before and after HITECH to move CCHIT forward, but questions about those past connections seemed to dog CCHIT as the role of certification became more and more integral to the adoption of healthcare IT. Coming just over a month after speaking with HCI Editor-in-Chief Anthony Guerra (Oct. 6), and less than two weeks after the first competitor to CCHIT emerged (Nov. 2), the organization will conduct its search for a replacement in a rapidly evolving competitive and regulatory landscape. Recently, Guerra obtained the first interview with CCHIT Trustee & Search Committee Chair Frank Trembulak, who will seek the right person to steer CCHIT through these uncertain waters.
GUERRA: Can you tell me which search firm you’re using?
TREMBULAK: Yes, Egon Zehnder International.
GUERRA: Any information about how or why you selected that company?
TREMBULAK: The board of trustees went through a competitive process identifying several national firms, and actually Egon Zehnder is an international firm as the name reflects. We interviewed two or three firms and decided that the attributes in their response to our request, and the interactions with the consultant, were very favorably inclined to the caliber of person or position we’re recruiting. So we selected them, and we’ll be finalizing and working through some of these details next week.
GUERRA: Can you tell me anything about the parameters you’ve given this company, in terms of what type of individual you’re looking for?
TREMBULAK: We’re right in the middle of that, Anthony. We are drafting and updating a position profile. On Monday I have a conference call with Egon Zehnder to get some input that they will use to interview trustee members, and also commissioners within the organization, to flesh that out and finalize that. Then we’ll be posting that on our Web site as a very transparent process, so everyone understands and sees the caliber and the nature of the position we’re recruiting.
GUERRA: It sounds like you’re not ready to give me specifics, in terms of the qualifications you’re looking for.
TREMBULAK: Generally speaking, and this will be refined, we’re looking for someone that has a good depth of knowledge and experience in health information technology combined with, of course, a working knowledge of the healthcare field. So that’s the baseline, and then it’s finding someone with that breadth of experience at the leadership level who has demonstrated skills and strategic planning.
GUERRA: What about someone with specific experience around certifying products or software? Is that important?
TREMBULAK: No, I don’t think so, in particular because of where we are today as an organization. Under Dr. Leavitt’s leadership, we’ve matured the process of identifying and determining certification needs and requirements through the board of commissioners, which is an all-voluntary board, as you probably are aware. So I think we have a good process in place, supported by Alisa Ray, our executive director, and staff, as well as all other voluntary staff. I think we have a rather proven track record now and framework of going about this. Not to say we’re not always looking to improve it and change it, but someone coming in really needs more of a breadth of knowledge of the HIT field and healthcare generally. The certification framework, I think, sets a foundation. So therefore, their facilitation skills would be important.
GUERRA: A lot of the negative comments about CCHIT, and Mark Leavitt in particular, had to do with the connections to the vendor community. Mark, at one time, was with HIMSS and HIMSS was one of the founding members. Is it going to be one of your goals to find someone with no ties or less ties to the vendor community to get away from some of that controversy?
TREMBULAK: Well, I think we’re going to look for the right person, whether that person has, in their past, any relationship to the vendors I can’t say. We’re going to look for the right person, with credibility and a skill set. I, myself, represent a provider. CCHIT has a lot of constituency members and a lot of providers from hospitals and physician representatives. So I think there’s been a very fair and balanced objective program established and operated by CCHIT through both its board of commissioners and its board of trustees. So we would expect to be able to maintain that.
GUERRA: Was there any connection between Mark retiring and the announcement of CCHIT’s first competitor, which happened only 11 days before?
TREMBULAK: No, absolutely not. Actually, I’ve been on the board of trustees for, I think, three or four years and, over the last couple of years, Mark has been very transparent about his plans. He was not looking at this position as long term, but he took on a challenge and an opportunity to lead a start up and help the organization get its feet on the ground, and he’s done an outstanding job of doing that. He’s created a lot of credibility, and it was really just a good time for him and his family to do this. So it was really circumstantial that the one announcement and the other announcement came in close succession. They were totally unrelated.
GUERRA: What are your thoughts on having competition now?
TREMBULAK: Well, I’m not fully informed of the Drummond Group. I do understand the nature of the organization and so forth. I think, again, CCHIT represents something very different. It’s a not-for-profit that’s run fundamentally with a lot of volunteers, very committed people from the HIT world, the healthcare world and so forth and has no other products to sell other than a process of certification. I think it tries to do that in the fairest and most objective way possible. So to the extent there’s competition from Drummond or others, we’ll have to compete and hopefully, we’ll demonstrate that level of objectivity and constituency involvement that sets us above, but time will tell as we go forward.
GUERRA: Currently CCHIT doesn’t receive any infusions of government money?
TREMBULAK: Correct. We had at the onset, if you will, a federal grant, but that’s all run out now.
GUERRA: Even though you’re a not-for-profit, you need to have a sustainable business model. You’ve got competition now, so you want to do well. I understand it may not have the same intensity as a normal for-profit organization, but there still has to be that sense that you have to do well or you’ll be out of business.
TREMBULAK: Oh, absolutely. Again, I’m in a large not-for-profit, and we have to have a sustainable business model, as you said. Mark and Alisa have led the commissioners, the trustees, through a process that we believe has achieved a sustainable business model and will generate the necessary cash flow to continually reinvest in the certification process, as well as developing our portfolio certifications to be very flexible to whatever comes down the road. So we think we’re well positioned, having being recognized, federally recognized, as a certification body. We are prepared to compete.
GUERRA: Maybe you can educate me a little bit about the role of a trustee.
TREMBULAK: Yes. The board of trustees has fiduciary duty or responsibility for the not-for-profit corporation including assuring that we have a sustainable business model, that the sustainable business model is meeting the mission and vision of the organization. It also will review and sign off on strategic directions for the organization, and make sure that the assets are appropriately stewarded for the accomplishment of that mission and vision. In simple terms, the board of trustees has to deal with the business and the compliance side and the board of commissioners is dealing with the nitty-gritty work of product certification, as well as the strategy around certification.
GUERRA: And then there’s the chair, which is what Mark was and what you’re looking for.
TREMBULAK: Right. The chair of the board of commissioners, and then we have a different chair of trustees.
GUERRA: It sounds very complicated to me. It sounds like a lot of people on a lot of boards. What’s it like on the inside?
TREMBULAK: Actually, it runs very well. The vision that’s been implemented was to set up an objective broad-based panel of commissioners that would contribute, work with, and approve certification standards. That occurs with the board of commissioners, which I believe numbers about 21 people. Mark Leavitt, to this point, has overseen and help guide and facilitate that. Mark would then also relate to the board of trustees for the fiduciary duties, so he would report on the activities of the board of commissioners to the board of trustees and how their activities are fulfilling the mission and vision. He did that in partnership with Alisa Ray, who helped provide staff support and also take care of those business attributes of the organization. So together, they have run the organization.
So I think, although some of the language is a little confusing as you identify – we have two chairs, the chair of commissioners and the chair of the board of trustees – it really isn’t to people who get involved and work with them in the organization.
GUERRA: Would it be important or beneficial to find someone with not-for-profit experience?
TREMBULAK: Not particularly, but I think it really is the skill set and the experience generally that we’re looking at. So I think that issue, not-for-profit versus for profit, will be an attribute, but it will be just one of many on the list.
GUERRA: Mark is retiring March, 31, are you confident you’ll have someone in by that point or is it possible, if you don’t, Alisa might take over on an interim basis?
TREMBULAK: Well, I think we’re somewhat confident that we will have a replacement identified and on board before Mark departs, but he has also said he will work with the organization. He’s just not going to abruptly leave if we need more time. He’s very willing to work with his successor in a transitional period. So there is some flexibility here and, as you note, Alisa provides a basis of stability and management to the organization. She is well-versed because she does attend the commissioner meetings, and she knows how that operates. We’re not concerned because of the amicable separation. Mark has planned this, and he’s very open to work with us. The date is more or less a date that we’re targeting but, if it goes beyond, it will go beyond.
GUERRA: Do you have any idea if Alisa is going to be throwing her hat in the ring?
TREMBULAK: I don’t know at this time. I haven’t talked to her specifically about that.
GUERRA: What should interested applicants do?
TREMBULAK: We will put the position profile on the CCHIT Web site and that will have contact information so they can submit. All applications will be provided to Egon Zehnder who’s doing the initial screening. Actually we’ve received several resumes and letters of interest already. So it will be a very public and transparent process, because we view that as very necessary since this is a public and open organization.