Confusion surrounds John Fleming HHS health IT appointment as some question his role

Confusion surrounding former Louisiana representative John Fleming's appointment to a new health IT post within the Department of Health and Human Services is mounting, leading some in the industry to question whether he is serving as a White House surrogate. 

Despite news reports that Fleming had accepted a position as deputy assistant secretary for health technology at HHS, the agency has yet to make an official announcement regarding a newly created position, leaving many in the industry unsure what to make of his role in health IT policy. 

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the mysterious appointment. Jacob Reider, the CEO at the Alliance for Better Healthcare, who previously served in senior-level positions at the ONC, told FierceHealthcare that Fleming “isn’t qualified to be the national coordinator," and that the opaque new position indicates the Trump administration didn't think so either. 

“My sense is that Fleming is a successful entrepreneur and loyal Republican and that he has been selected to be the eyes and ears for the White House within HHS with respect to health IT policy,” he said.

Adding more confusion to the appointment, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT introduced Fleming during the ONC's policy and standards committee meeting on Thursday morning. According to an ONC spokesperson, Fleming's official title is "deputy assistant secretary for health technology reform," a slight change to what has been previously reported. 

ONC Acting National Coordinator Jon White, M.D., made the introduction during the opening minutes of the meeting, noting that Fleming is “deeply interested in what we’re doing.” White added that Fleming would be reporting to the ONC's national coordinator once the administration names someone to that position. 

Fleming, a former representative and family physician from Louisiana, spoke briefly about his experience with health IT, noting that his family practice was an early adopter of EHRs in 1997 and went fully paperless in 1999. But he said Meaningful Use requirements had placed a burden on EHR vendors, which found it difficult to meet the federal standards.

“As you can tell, I have a passion for this because I really believe the future of healthcare is highly dependent on the central nervous system that healthcare IT provides for us,” he said during the call. 

Fleming was reportedly named to the newly created position more than a week ago, but HHS has not released any official announcement. According to media reports, he thought he was interviewing for the national coordinator position but considered the HHS post “the same or a similar position.”

When asked to confirm the appointment last week, an HHS spokeswoman said the agency “isn’t commenting on personnel at this time.”

Earlier this week, Fleming was listed in the HHS directory. The spokeswoman did not return a request for clarification on Thursday morning.

Several health IT associations, including HIMSS and the American Medical Informatics Association, have been waiting for an official announcement from HHS before releasing public statements about the new appointment.