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Karen DeSalvo insists ONC has not abandoned meaningful use

At the AHIMA convention, ONC head Karen DeSalvo, M.D., voiced support for meaningful use stage 2, but acknowledged some providers are having trouble.

SAN DIEGO -- With most of the health IT world pushing for a slowdown in the drive toward meaningful use stage 2, National Coordinator for Health IT Karen DeSalvo, M.D., maintained that she and her agency remain committed to the meaningful use program even as ONC has focused nearly all its efforts in recent months on interoperability.

DeSalvo also said she believes ONC's new "Interoperability Roadmap" and other planning moves are laying the groundwork for sustained federal support for health IT initiatives in public and private healthcare settings through the end of the Obama administration in 2016, and beyond.

"Meaningful use is necessary but not sufficient" to stimulate IT development in healthcare systems, DeSalvo told SearchHealthIT in an interview after her keynote address that kicked off the general session of the annual American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) Convention and Exhibit.

DeSalvo said that as she travels around the country she sees some healthcare systems succeeding in the race to attest to meaningful use stage 2 this year, while others are struggling. Meanwhile, a coalition of health IT advocacy groups -- notably, not including AHIMA -- have asked Congress to pass legislation that would shorten the meaningful use attestation period next year to from 365 days to 90 days.

"They're having a hard time solving it, but it really matters for the patients," DeSalvo said of meaningful use measures that require patients to view their own medical records and providers to be able to transmit records electronically. "There have been some technical challenges."

We need to standardize, and do it fast. Everyone I've spoken to, including developers, wants to do this.
Karen DeSalvo, M.D.National Coordinator for Health IT

In her address to some 2,000 AHIMA attendees, her first to the influential health information management directors, DeSalvo drew laughs when she introduced herself: "I'm from the federal government and I'm here to help."

She noted that ONC was created a decade ago during the Bush administration, which she said supported digitizing healthcare. Since then, she said ONC has made strides in establishing health information exchanges in all 50 states, spurred health IT efforts in poor rural areas, and helped oversee what she called "tremendous adoption" of EHRs and meaningful use during stage 1 and even in stage 2.

Now, though, DeSalvo appears to be making conciliatory gestures toward EHR vendors, CIOs and other groups that insist that meaningful use is too difficult to achieve in a short time frame.

"We really want to make sure the next policy of this program is an advancement, but doesn't crush medicine along the way," she told the crowd.

In the interview with SearchHealthIT, however, DeSalvo said she is convinced that meaningful use is well established and will move on to stage 3 as planned. Furthermore, she asserted that by drawing a broad range of constituencies into planning for interoperability, including setting health data standards, momentum for progress in health IT will continue beyond 2016 whether it's under another Democratic administration, or a Republican one.

"I'm a political appointee and I'm going to walk out the door eventually, even if the next president keeps me. This administration and this president really understand health IT," she said in the interview. "But I absolutely believe that health IT is bipartisan. What I see evolving is a technology policy framework that gets us beyond EHRs."

To the AHIMA members, DeSalvo emphasized ONC's efforts to promote interoperability, while protecting patient privacy and data security. She also expressed support for data governance, AHIMA's main policy goal over the next year, as well as for entrepreneurial trends such as consumer wellness devices; she noted she wears a fitness tracker herself.

Among those efforts is a campaign to update the federal health strategic plan, which includes coordinating IT strategy among some of the biggest federal agencies, such as the Veterans Administration, Department of Defense, Social Security Administration and CMS, among others.

"The data has been captured very well, but it's sticking in silos very often," she said.

As for data governance, DeSalvo told SearchHealthIT that the rapidly evolving practice will not only help locate health information in complex systems but also "set the rules of the road in the public and private sectors for the collection and use of the data."

In the meantime, DeSalvo reiterated her support for meaningful use as a still viable policy and suggested that ONC's efforts to spur the setting of health IT standards for interoperability will go hand in hand with it.

"We're going to focus on the meaningful use portfolio to keep standardizing," she said. "We need to standardize, and do it fast. Everyone I've spoken to, including developers, wants to do this."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Shaun Sutner, news and features writer, or contact @SSutner on Twitter.

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