Karen DeSalvo to step down as ONC head if confirmed for HHS role

President Barack Obama late Wednesday announced his intent to nominate current National Coordinator for Health IT Karen DeSalvo for Assistant Secretary for Health at the Department of Health and Human Services.

As DeSalvo's confirmation is pending, she will continue to serve both as head of ONC and as Acting Assistant Secretary for Health, according to an email sent to staffers by HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell that was shared with FierceHealthIT. Once confirmed by the Senate, however, DeSalvo will step down as National Coordinator, HHS confirmed.

Last fall, DeSalvo was tapped by Burwell for the Acting Assistant Secretary for Health role in the wake of the Ebola crisis. Initially, it was thought at that time that she would step down as National Coordinator. Days after that announcement, however, DeSalvo, in a blog post, said she would serve in both capacities.

DeSalvo joined ONC in January 2014 following her tenure as Health Commissioner for the City of New Orleans and Senior Health Policy Advisory to Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

Jacob Reider, who served as deputy National Coordinator alongside DeSalvo at ONC before leaving last November, told FierceHealthIT via email that DeSalvo is a "perfect fit" for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health.

"It's great news that Karen has been nominated as the next Assistant Secretary for Health," Reider said. "She's worked hard to manage the migration of ONC from an expansive ARRA-fed mission toward one with a much more focused policy and technical agenda. I was quoted in the press a few months ago as lamenting that she was 'wearing two hats' and this was interpreted by some as a critique of Karen and her leadership. My comment in fact was that one person performing the roles of two full-time leaders was impossible for any human. Karen, OASH and ONC all need her to focus on one role, not two."

Still, Reider said, ONC is more than just one leader.

"ONC is a very strong team of nearly 200 people, working very well together as a true Stage 4 tribe," Reider said. "Great leaders like Jodi Daniel, Jon White and Steve Posnack have been at HHS leading health IT efforts for a long time, and will continue to do so."

Reider added that ONC's next leader must be someone with a steady hand on the tiller who understands the policy and technical opportunities, as well as the limitations in the industry.

"As the nation shifts toward value based care, the importance of health IT will grow, as will the need for an ONC that has laser focus on technical standards and narrow policy levers that facilitate and don't constrain innovation--with the needs of individuals [all of us] as the primary guiding force," Reider said.

Russell Branzell, president and CEO of the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives, echoed Reider's sentiments, saying that DeSalvo has been able to put struggling programs back on the right path.

"There's still some programs that need to be worked on and fixed, but she's worked very hard to be collaborative and very community-driven as far as being involved with the industry with the people that are truly on the forefront," Branzell told FierceHealthIT. "She's done a great job providing the flexibility that we needed to keep the program on a path with momentum, at the same time making corrections to the Meaningful Use program where, over a five-year period, corrections were probably due."

Branzell also lauded the recent additions of [Chief Health Information Officer] Mike McCoy and [Chief Medical Information Officer] Andy Gettinger to ONC, saying that the agency is restocking its shelves with some great industry talent.

"That helps with any transition that might occur in the future," he said. "With great people like that--really smart but also personable people that are engaged with the community--the agency is in good hands."

Branzell added that from CHIME's perspective, the next national coordinator doesn't necessarily have to be a physician, a nurse or a CIO, but rather someone with both provider experience and solid technical knowledge.

"We continue to beat the drum of, we'd love to see people from the industry in that role," he said. "We'd also like to see an individual who really knows how to drive value out of these investments." 

To learn more:
- here's the White House announcement