House panel slashes ONC funding, maintains OCR’s budget

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The House Appropriations Committee sidestepped Trump's overall HHS funding cuts, but kept the 37% cut to ONC.

A draft funding bill released by the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday included significant budget cuts for the federal government’s health IT agency.   

The bill (PDF) includes a 37% cut to the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC), which falls in line with the funding levels outlined in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget. ONC funding would drop almost $22 million to $38.3 million in 2018 under the House bill.

The cut to ONC came as lawmakers sidestepped overall cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services, and added $1.1 billion to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Experts expressed concern earlier this year that NIH cuts proposed by the Trump administration would be devastating to precision medicine research efforts.

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Although future markups could provide additional funding, the bill is likely to come as a disappointment to health IT organizations that criticized the administration's proposed cuts in May. Leslie Krigstein, vice president of congressional affairs at the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME), previously told FierceHealthcare the budget cut would make it “extremely difficult, if not impossible” to roll out provisions of the 21st Century Cures Act and maintain EHR standards and certification efforts.

RELATED: AHIMA raises concerns about ONC funding

Not everyone sees it that way. In a statement released following the bill’s release, Health IT Now Executive Director Joel White said the reduced funding “sets the table” for a discussion about how ONC can “refocus on core priorities.”

The House budget would also maintain funding for the HHS Office for Civil Rights at nearly $39 million, shirking a $6 million proposed cut from the Trump administration. Privacy experts have pointed out that OCR’s HIPAA enforcement isn’t likely to subside anytime soon, regardless of the agency’s funding levels, in part because their enforcement budget is driven by the penalties they collect.

“Congress is encouraging OCR to continue its enforcement activities to self-fund itself,” Joy Pritts, a consultant and the former chief privacy officer at ONC, said during a webinar hosted by the Healthcare Compliance Association on Wednesday, prior to the bill's release. “You’re not going to see any time soon, I don’t believe, any alleviation in OCR enforcement activities.”