Bipartisan Work, Industry Cooperation is the Key to Successful Health IT Policy: ONC Chiefs

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The healthcare data system’s modernization is spearheaded on the federal side by the ONC for Health Information Technology, an HHS agency responsible for regulating the US health IT framework. Several challenges come with guiding health IT policy, which include – policy constraints and budget limitations. But over the past few years, the office has managed to avoid a few of the Capitol Hill hurdles, such as partisanship.

In a recent College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) panel comprising current ONC, Micky Tripathi, MD, and six of his predecessors, the challenges of guiding health IT policy were discussed.

Rob Kolodner, MD, who held the role for two and a half years during the George W. Bush administration, remembered how his team worked to develop the first federal health IT strategic plan and the challenges they had to face while obtaining the necessary approvals. He recalled that one of their main goals was to enable patients to reliably and securely exchange electronic health information with their providers, which couldn’t be achieved at that time.

The current National Coordinator Micky Tripathi, MD, also shared his experience and disappointment regarding data flow challenges spurred by COVID-19. He said that following all the hard work and investments he and his predecessors made over the years to lay down a foundation for the nation’s EHR systems, it was disheartening to see it fall during the challenging times.

In contrast to their disappointments, the ONCs also expressed their satisfaction with the office’s ability to work with future administrations and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

As per Karen DeSalvo, MD, national coordinator under President Barack Obama, their work on the 21st Century Cures Act was a great example of ONC communicating bipartisan IT needs, the legislators understanding why the Office of the National Coordinator needed to take on new roles, and ONC teams continuing and adding onto those efforts. She recounted how they build on each other’s work and how they could do it in a nonpartisan way.

Vindell Washington, MD, who also held the role during the Obama administration, agreed with DeSalvo, citing that during the wrapping up of the Cares Act, the constant contact between his team and Republican Senator Lamar Alexander Jr.’s staff was encouraging. He also recounted how when he met his successor, Donald Trump appointee Don Rucker, M.D., he had placed trust in the incoming coordinator to pursue what they both felt was best for the healthcare system’s future.

All the ONCs stressed the need to extend the spirit of collaboration into ONC’s relationship with the industry.

Highlighting the importance of feedback on policies, David Blumenthal, MD, who served from 2009 to 2011, said that industry tends to make noise only when it’s upset with a rule proposal. Feedback on what policies are appreciated should also be taken into account when drafting new rules.

Taking the call for feedback and comments, Tripathi shared his email address with the viewers (micky.tripathi@hhs.gov), inviting them to leave their feedback for future major rules and updates.