Vital Signs Blog

Champion of IT extension centers leaving HHS

Mat Kendall Kendall
This month, someone you probably don't know, but who had a major impact on healthcare IT, will be leaving your employ. And as he leaves office, the major project he built is in danger of disappearing as well.

Mat Kendall steps down March 21 from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology at HHS. There he has quietly headed the department that created a nationwide network of regional health IT extension centers known as RECs. The RECs are creatures of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Kendall has been ONC's director of the Office of Provider Adoption Support for 4 years. Since their inception, the 62 RECs have been Kendall's babies.

The RECs have proven to be quite popular with Modern Healthcare readers, according to our latest health IT survey in which 71% of respondents indicated they wanted to see federal support for the REC program extended.

A key goal set for the RECs by the ONC was that they help 100,000 providers enroll in the ARRA's electronic health-record incentive payment program. Adding to the challenge, RECs would focus on smaller, primary-care physician practices and on smaller, rural clinics and critical-access hospitals, many of which were health IT neophytes before the RECs arrived.

To date, the RECs have worked with more than 150,000 providers. About 134,000 of them now have EHRs. Nearly 94,000 of them have achieved meaningful use.

The RECs also have worked with more than 80% of all federally qualified healthcare centers and FQHC look-alikes, and nearly 80% of all critical-access hospitals.

“Under his leadership, ONC executed remarkably successful REC and workforce (development) programs,” said Judy Murphy, the deputy national coordinator for programs and policy at ONC, in a note to the staff Thursday about Kendall's departure. The RECs have helped ensure “that all providers were able to select and implement EHRs in order to optimize workflow and transform care delivery,” Murphy said. She has named Kim Lynch, a Kendall co-worker, as his replacement.

In a recent e-mail, Kendall thanked his ONC colleagues “for the amazing work that you have done to support the REC program.”

“I've been constantly impressed with the way that everyone has surmounted the myriad of obstacles … and been so successful in such a relatively short amount of time,” Kendall said.

But as Kendall leaves, the health IT extension program is in a time of transition—quite possibly heading for its demise.

Initial ARRA funding for the 62 RECS started in 2010 totaled $688 million and was to run for only four years. After that, the RECs were supposed to have found other funding sources.

Some centers have received ONC dispensation to use the remainder of their unspent federal grants this year and next, but, unless something changes, the federal REC funding spigot will close in 2015. There is a reasonable concern that the RECs' clientele—small and rural physician offices, clinics and hospitals—will be unable to support them.

Dr. Farzad Mostashari, the former ONC chief and Kendall's one-time boss, in commenting on the Modern Healthcare survey results, said it would be “a great investment” for the feds to continue funding the RECs, adding, “We would be crazy to let this slip out of our hands.”

So far, though, federal funds on the RECs are running out and no one in either the executive or the legislative branch has made an effort to support them.

Follow Joseph Conn on Twitter: @MHJConn


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