DeSalvo Nominated To Officially Serve as HHS Assistant Secretary

May 7, 2015 in News

On Wednesday, President Obama nominated National Coordinator for Health IT Karen DeSalvo to serve as HHS assistant secretary for health — a post she has served in on an interim basis, Health Data Management reports (Slabodkin, Health Data Management, 5/7).

If confirmed by the Senate, DeSalvo would step down from her position at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (Tahir, Modern Healthcare, 5/6).

Background on DeSalvo

DeSalvo was named to the ONC post in December 2013, making her the fifth national coordinator for health IT.

Before ONC, DeSalvo served as New Orleans’ health commissioner. 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.

Last year, HHS appointed DeSalvo as acting assistant secretary and asked her to lead the agency’s Ebola response team (iHealthBeat, 10/24/14). ONC originally indicated that DeSalvo would leave her post at the agency (Modern Healthcare, 5/6). However, DeSalvo shortly after the announcement said she would serve both roles (Bowman, FierceHealthIT, 5/6).

During her time at ONC, DeSalvo, among other things, has helped:

  • Oversee the federal electronic health record incentive payment program (iHealthBeat, 10/24/14); and
  • Promote the expanded use of EHRs through the development of an interoperability roadmap.

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 nomination in a notice to staffers.

As HHS assistant secretary, DeSalvo would oversee 12 public health offices, including the:

  • Office of the Surgeon General; and
  • President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition (Versel, MedCity News, 5/6).

In the email, Burwell noted that DeSalvo would continue to work at ONC as her confirmation is pending (FierceHealthIT, 5/6). According to Health Data Management, a potential replacement for DeSalvo has not been announced (Health Data Management, 5/7).

However, there has been some speculation that ONC Acting Deputy National Coordinator Jon White could succeed DeSalvo, Modern Healthcare reports.

Reaction

While stakeholders largely objected to DeSalvo leaving ONC last year, Jeff Smith — senior policy adviser for the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives — predicted that DeSalvo’s potential departure will be better received this time around.

He said, “The anxiety is not as high now as it was in the summer and fall of last year.”

Smith added that DeSalvo’s experience would be well-suited for HHS, particularly as the department works to transition to value-based payment models, an initiative largely dependent on health IT and data sharing.

However, other stakeholders have been more skeptical of DeSalvo’s nomination.

For example, Robert Tennant, director of health IT policy at the Medical Group Management Association, said DeSalvo’s departure would “leav[e] a significant vacuum in the health IT community,” noting that DeSalvo has demonstrated “tremendous leadership” at ONC and her successor would be faced with several challenges.

Meanwhile, Eric Helsher, vice president of client success at Epic, said that the “lack of continuity in [the national coordinator for health IT] role is a bit challenging” (Modern Healthcare, 5/6).

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