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ONC Roundup: Senior Leadership Changes Spark Questions

July 17, 2018
by Rajiv Leventhal
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The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) has continued to experience changes within its upper leadership, leading some folks to again ponder what the health IT agency’s role will be moving forward.

Last week it was reported that Genevieve Morris, who has been detailed to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) from her position as ONC’s principal deputy national coordinator, will move over full time to lead the newly establishment VA Office of Electronic Health Record Modernization (OEHRM). Morris will head OEHRM, which was launched in June, and will manage the preparation, deployment and maintenance of VA’s new electronic healthcare record system and the health IT tools dependent upon it. 

With Morris departing, questions will arise about who at ONC is spearheading ONC’s TEFCA initiative, the agency’s plan to jolt the sluggish pace of progress on interoperability between providers. Morris was previously active in TEFCA discussions, showing an ability to answer stakeholder questions at a high level while also discussing its potential future impact.

But Morris leaving isn’t the only shakeup within ONC’s senior executive department. John Fleming, M.D., the deputy assistant secretary for health technology reform, has been nominated to assistant secretary of commerce for economic development. In late June, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) applauded the Trump Administration for nominating Fleming for the position. “I can think of no better candidate than Dr. Fleming for the role of assistant secretary of commerce for economic development,” said Kennedy at the time. Fleming will have a hearing on his nomination this week.

Fleming, a former Congressman and a practicing family physician for nearly 40 years, was hired last March to take on a new role at ONC— deputy assistant secretary for health technology reform. Earlier this year, at the HIMSS18 conference in Las Vegas, Fleming said that relieving clinician burden through health IT was his main area of focus. Having been a practicing provider for so long, along with being an early adopter of EHRs in the 1990s, this focus area seemed like a natural fit for Fleming.

As such, in Politico’s July 16 morning eHealth newsletter, it was pondered that with these changes—coupled with CMS moving more aggressively into interoperability issues, with strong data sharing proposals in recent rule releases—is ONC “fading away” as a department within HHS? To this question, ONC spokesperson Peter Ashkenaz rebuffed those claims, telling Politico that ONC is very much involved “with TEFCA, the data sharing rule, the definition of ‘open APIs without special effort,’ and an Aug. 6-8 interoperability forum.”

ONC’s 2019 budget could get cut by up to 37 percent, as suggested by the White House, though a recent House Appropriations Committee draft bill proposed a less severe budget cut (a 29-percent decrease) for the health IT agency.

 

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