New health IT coordinator will act fast on stimulus

The most urgent task for David Blumenthal, new national coordinator for health information technology, will be “to get his arms around getting the money out," said a senior official in the coordinator's office at the Health and Human Services Department.

The official was referencing the economic stimulus law's authorized budget for health IT. April 20 is Blumenthal's first day on the job.

Blumenthal will oversee $2 billion in spending for programs that will advance the adoption of electronic health records and implementation of a Nationwide Health Information Network. The programs will include state grants for health IT infrastructure and workforce development. Another $18 billion would be available to provide higher payments by Medicare and Medicaid to physicians’ offices and hospitals that demonstrate meaningful use of EHRs beginning in 2011.

Blumenthal must immediately bring together a Health IT Policy Committee, which the law established, to make recommendations on standards for data exchange, implementation specifications and certification criteria, said Kelly Cronin, director of the office of programs and coordination at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT. The coordinator must submit an operations plan to Congress by May 15, according to the timeline in the law.

“The stimulus funding is tied to Congress getting that operations plan,” said Cronin, who spoke last week at the annual World Health Care Congress.

The health IT provisions of the stimulus law would build on the work that ONC has accomplished since its inception in 2004, Cronin said. The coordinator’s office has developed examples of how providers could use health IT, formed public/private groups to guide its development, and awarded contracts to establish standards for health care activities and certification criteria for EHRs, ONC has said.

"All that is ongoing, and now [with the stimulus], we have a lot more to support the whole process and take it to the next level,” Cronin said.

The initial role of government is to smooth the process of connectivity among providers, said George Halvorson, chairman and chief executive officer at Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Kaiser Foundation Hospitals. The government should make it “difficult for providers to develop siloed systems,” he said, or systems that can’t share data, especially because public and private groups participating in health IT standards-setting efforts are “not that far away from standards for interoperability.”

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