Health IT Pulse

Oct 29 2014   11:54AM GMT

DeSalvo still running ONC

Shaun Sutner Shaun Sutner Profile: Shaun Sutner

Meaningful use

Karen DeSalvo, M.D., is still in charge.

That unambiguous message was embedded in a low-profile post on ONC’s blog, “Health IT Buzz,” a few days after the agency blasted out news to the world that the sort-of former ONC coordinator was gone, promoted to acting assistant secretary for health (ASH) at HHS.

While DeSalvo’s portfolio at HHS is important (it includes supervising the federal government’s Ebola response and overseeing the surgeon general’s office), we’ve learned she will also continue to oversee ONC.

“Dr. DeSalvo will serve as Acting ASH while maintaining her leadership of ONC.  Importantly, she will continue to work on high level policy issues at ONC, and ONC will follow the policy direction that she has set,” the un-bylined blog post says. “She will remain the chair of the Health IT Policy Committee; she will continue to lead on the development and finalization of the Interoperability Roadmap; and she will remain involved in meaningful use policymaking.”

It’s unclear whether ONC insiders knew DeSalvo was never really leaving the agency, which she has headed since December 2013 after the departure of ONC’s former leader, the charismatic Farzad Mostashari, M.D., or if the decision to keep her in control was made some time after the news first leaked out Oct. 23.

The health IT community has been, indeed, buzzing over DeSalvo’s pseudo-exit. Some observers, such as, John Halamka, M.D., CIO at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, thought it wasn’t such a big deal and constituted normal turnover, and perhaps the much-clamored-for movement toward interoperability and standards would now shift decisively to the private sector.

But let’s also not underestimate the anxiety over DeSalvo’s purported departure and leadership vacuum at the top of an agency that was already seen as floundering because of the real and impending exits of other top officials such as DeSalvo’s number two, Jacob Reider, M.D., and ONC chief scientist Doug Fridsma, M.D.

A lot of people were worried.

Now, it looks like DeSalvo’s “return” is meant to allay those fears.

Witness the American Medical Association’s (AMA) response, for one. The AMA has been worried that the meaningful use program is too tough on doctors and what docs really need is more interoperability between EHRs and other health IT systems.

“The American Medical Association is pleased to learn that Karen DeSalvo will remain involved in the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology,” the AMA’s President-Elect, Steven Stack, M.D., said in a release. “We look forward to continuing to work with her to fix the meaningful use program and achieve an interoperable technology infrastructure.”

Insiders have been told DeSalvo will continue to be the boss of Lisa Lewis, ONC’s former COO and acting deputy national coordinator.

Lewis’s title now is acting national coordinator.

Lewis may be running the shop day to day, but DeSalvo remains at the top.

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