The White House has nominated Dr. Karen DeSalvo to be assistant secretary for health at HHS. If confirmed by the Senate, DeSalvo would leave her post as head of the department's Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology.
DeSalvo, 49, was hired to lead the ONC in 2013. Last year HHS made her acting assistant secretary for health and tasked her with helping the administration manage the department's Ebola response.
At first, ONC indicated DeSalvo would leave the agency and said Lisa Lewis, its chief operating officer, would assume interim leadership.
But stakeholders objected, said Jeff Smith, senior policy adviser for the College of Health Information Management Executives. Smith said the prospect of DeSalvo's departure will be better received this time.
Last fall, the ONC was juggling regulatory changes in the CMS' incentive program for electronic health records and crafting a report mapping out the agency's future and a strategy for achieving interoperability among IT software and devices. Much of that work has been completed.
“The anxiety is not as high now as it was in the summer and fall of last year,” Smith said. He added that DeSalvo's experience and abilities will serve HHS well. The department's initiative to boost value-based pay, he noted, depends on strong health IT infrastructure and data-sharing.
Other industry observers, though, were a bit less sanguine about the move. Robert Tennant, the director of health IT policy at the Medical Group Management Association, said the departure “leaves a significant vacuum in the HIT community.” DeSalvo, he said, has shown “tremendous leadership” during her tenure and her successor will face significant challenges, such as the need for effective EHR certification requirements. The certification program, led by the ONC, provides a seal of approval that an EHR system will allow providers to fulfill the government's requirements for meaningfully using health IT.
Eric Helsher, the vice president of client success at Epic Systems Corp., said that the “lack of continuity in that role is a bit challenging.” Early speculation among health IT sources inside and outside of government has centered on Dr. Jon White, the agency's acting deputy coordinator, as a potential successor.
“The office has a very long history of bringing in current physicians to the post,” Smith said. “I think it's a very high likelihood that it's an M.D.”
Smith added that he hopes DeSalvo's successor has experience with implementing EHRs in clinical settings. “The number of qualified folks for this position is astronomically higher than, say, five years ago,” he said.
She previously was health commissioner for the city of New Orleans, where she was credited with deploying health information technology in innovative ways to improve public health.
Modern Healthcare recently named DeSalvo one of the Top 25 Women in Healthcare.