DeSalvo Leaves ONC Post To Lead Ebola Efforts at HHS

October 24, 2014 in News

On Thursday, National Coordinator for Health IT Karen DeSalvo announced that she will leave her post to serve as acting HHS assistant secretary, effective immediately, where she will lead HHS’ Ebola response team, Modern Healthcare reports.

Background on DeSalvo

DeSalvo was named to the post just 10 months ago in December 2013 after serving as New Orleans’ health commissioner (Conn/Tahir, Modern Healthcare, 10/23).

Prior to that, DeSalvo was a professor of medicine and vice dean of community affairs and health policy at Tulane University in New Orleans.

In addition, she headed up the effort to create a network of primary care medical homes as part of New Orleans’ post-Hurricane Katrina rebuilding process. She also previously served as president of the Louisiana Health Care Quality Forum.

DeSalvo was the fifth national coordinator for health IT, following:

  • Farzad Mostashari;
  • David Blumenthal;
  • Robert Kolodner; and
  • David Brailer, the first ONC head when the position was established by former President George W. Bush (R) in 2004 (iHealthBeat, 12/19/13).

During her time at ONC, DeSalvo helped oversee the federal electronic health record incentive payment program, which has doled out $25.1 billion in incentive payments and helped boost EHR adoption rates above 92% for hospitals and 75% for office-based physicians.

Under the 2009 economic stimulus package, providers who demonstrate meaningful use of certified EHRs can qualify for Medicaid and Medicare incentive payments.

Details of Announcement

HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell announced DeSalvo’s departure and new role in a notice to staffers.

She wrote, “As the acting assistant secretary for health, [DeSalvo's] experience as a practicing physician, a senior member of the HHS team, and as a nationally recognized leader in public health, will be invaluable to the department and me.” She added that DeSalvo “will bring her knowledge and real-world experience to bear on some of the most important issues confronting our department, especially our Ebola response efforts” (Modern Healthcare, 10/24).

In an emailed statement to iHealthBeat, ONC spokesperson Peter Ashkenaz said that DeSalvo was leaving her role at ONC at the request of Burwell and that the move is “effective immediately” Ashkenaz said that DeSalvo will serve as acting assistant secretary until the Senate has confirmed an assistant secretary for HHS.

Lisa Lewis, ONC’s COO, will serve as acting National Coordinator for Health IT, and DeSalvo will continue to support ONC’s work in her new role and will “be available to Lisa and the ONC team,” according to the statement (ONC statement, 10/24).

It is unclear yet whether DeSalvo plans to return to ONC after the Ebola outbreak is under control (Sullivan, Government Health IT, 10/23).

According to Politico‘s “Morning eHealth,” some health IT stakeholders, including Jeff Smith of the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives, believe that DeSalvo is “on deployment” to help control the Ebola outbreak and will return to ONC.

However, DeSalvo and ONC would not comment whether she will eventually return to the agency (Gold et al., “Morning eHealth,” Politico, 10/24).


Health IT stakeholders expressed mixed sentiments regarding DeSalvo’s departure from ONC.

Marc Probst, CIO of Intermountain Health, said that the meaningful use program “is in a tenuous time,” adding, “There seems to be a lot of change in [ONC], and I am concerned that this will delay the important progress required.”

Similarly, Smith said, “It will be essential that ONC communicate to stakeholders its intentions and its strategy to minimize the impact” of DeSalvo’s departure (Allen et al., Politico Pro, 10/24).

Deven McGraw — partner in the health care practice of Manatt, Phelps Phillips and a member of the Health IT Policy Committee — said, “It is a tough time for ONC to lose its leader, given the importance of getting specifics on the interoperability roadmap out for public comment and starting to implement it in early 2015, and helping set the course for meaningful use Stage 3.” She added, “There are talented and dedicated staff at ONC, and they will of course carry on this work — but I have to admit this still feels like a setback. I am glad to see (in press reports) that she is going to ‘continue supporting’ ONC — but both positions are full-time ‘plus’ jobs, so it’s hard to see how that will be possible, even for someone as talented as Dr. DeSalvo” (“Morning eHealth,” Politico, 10/24).

Meanwhile, William Bria — president of the Association of Medical Directors of Information Systems — said that “a reboot of ONC seems to be what’s needed” to get the meaningful use program “back on the right track” (Modern Healthcare, 10/23).

Jennifer Covich Bordenick, CEO of the eHealth Initiative, said, “The wheels are already in motion for much of ONC’s work … so I am hopeful that we won’t lose much momentum” (Politico Pro, 10/24).

Reider Announces ONC Departure

An ONC spokesperson also confirmed that Jacob Reider, deputy national coordinator at ONC, has resigned from his post to spend more time with his family in Albany, N.Y.

In a letter to staff, Reider noted that he committed to his family that he would work at ONC for no longer than three years. Reider will continue to work at ONC until the end of November and said that ONC has already begun to search for his replacement( Goedert, Health Data Management, 10/24).

Many Top Officials Have Left ONC in Recent Months

DeSalvo and Reider’s departures add to a growing list of top ONC officials who have left the agency in recent months.

On Oct. 17, Judy Murphy stepped down from her role as chief nursing officer and director of ONC’s Office of Clinical Quality and Safety to join IBM. Meanwhile, Doug Fridsma, chief scientist at ONC, will become president and CEO of the American Medical Informatics Association on Nov. 1.

In July, Joy Pritts left her post as chief privacy officer at ONC and Lygeia Ricciardi stepped down as director of ONC’s Office of Consumer eHealth (Bowman, FierceHealthIT, 10/23).

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