HHS beefs up health IT coordinator's office

Office to grow to 100 positions and add privacy officer

The Health and Human Services Department’s office for coordinating health information technology will double in size as it reorganizes  and refocuses its goals while HHS prepares to release three regulations on health IT in weeks, the office's director said today.

HHS’ Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) will double to 100 positions, and has several new posts in its organizational chart and three overriding goals, National Coordinator Dr. David Blumenthal said at a meeting of the Health IT Policy advisory committee.

The office’s goals are promoting widespread adoption of electronic health records by 2014, creating an infrastructure for a nationwide interoperable system capable of exchanging health data, and setting a foundation for a national “learning” health care system in which data on health outcomes and quality is continually collected and fed back into the system, Blumenthal said.

"ONC is changing dramatically, even as we are trying to implement these programs, and because we are trying to implement these programs, ” Blumenthal said.

President George W. Bush created the office by executive order in 2004, and it was authorized by Congress in February 2009. Under the economic stimulus law, the ONC and HHS will distribute $20 billion for health IT, mostly in the form of payments to doctors and hospitals who buy and "meaningfully use" certified record systems.

In 2009, the ONC expanded to 50 positions, from about 33, and has added a chief scientist, chief privacy officer, deputy national coordinator for operations, economic analysis director and other positions. As of Dec. 1, the office’s organizational chart now shows 14 positions, up from five positions in the previous chart.

The scientist position reflects the understanding that health IT operates at the border of science -- including health informatics -- and practice, Blumenthal said. And the economic analysis office will strengthen the ONC’s ability to use financial incentives to influence behavior, specifically the behavior of adopting and using electronic records.

“The process of modeling adoption [of health IT] has not received a lot of attention up to this point,” Blumenthal said.

The office is actively evaluating candidates for the chief privacy officer and expects to name an appointee by next February, he said.

The office has announced several grant programs, including its Beacon Communities program, to foster health information exchange and adoption to date. Meanwhile, HHS is expected to release notices of proposed rulemaking shortly on certification criteria, meaningful use and certification processes.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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