After nearly a year of preparing for a $22 million budget cut, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) will maintain its current funding level at least through September.
A 2,232-page spending bill (PDF) released by lawmakers Wednesday night includes $60.4 million for ONC. The funding could buy some room for the agency to work on an EHR reporting program required under the 21st Century Cures Act. ONC officials have previously said that program is the only Cures requirement they would be unable to meet based on the pending budget cuts.
Both the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) and Pew Charitable Trusts have called on congressional leaders to fully fund ONC to ensure the agency can proceed with Cures mandates, including the EHR reporting mechanism. Tom Leary, vice president of government relations at HIMSS, says his organization plans to meet with ONC officials in the coming months about how to build a program that "can be beneficial to both the provider and vendor community."
In a statement to FierceHealthcare, AMIA president and CEO Doug Fridsma, M.D., said fully funding ONC, along with the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), offers “a few months of consistency.”
Although the funding only runs through the end of September, Jeff Smith, vice president of public policy at AMIA, adds that the bill recalibrates default levels in the even to future continuing resolutions, reiterates congressional support and allows ONC to implement a greater portion of Cures provisions on schedules.
“Not everyone in Congress wants to see ONC, OCR, AHRQ, or CDC at these funding levels, but enough do to maintain a reasonable status quo,” he said in an email. “And these days, the status quo is likely the best we can hope for.”
#Omnibus would fund @ONC_HealthIT at $60M (flat with FY17 and not cut per President's request). ONC officials previously indicated that a cut would prevent implementation of the #EHR reporting measures from 21st Century Cures. With funds, that bipar provision might now proceed. pic.twitter.com/9J7oxMeodG— Ben Moscovitch (@benmoscovitch) March 22, 2018
While flat funding may seem like a victory given the potential cuts, the bill provided increases for multiple agencies across the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), including NIH and CDC.
“It’s somewhat telling that ONC and the health IT community still have to make a strong argument for the role that health IT has overall,” says Leary.
Agency officials have been slimming down the agency since President Donald Trump proposed a 37% cut to the agency last March. In a budget justification released last May, National Coordinator Donald Rucker, M.D., indicated the agency would refocus its efforts on policy, governance, and standards. His plan would also close out the Office of the Chief Privacy Officer while maintaining funding for a stand-alone leadership position, currently occupied by Kathryn Marchesini.
Rucker reiterated the streamlined approach during a meeting with reporters at HIMSS, indicating that agency is primarily focused on meeting the provisions of Cures, and has “moved the staffing around” to meet the demands around standards and rulemaking.
OCR budget flat; more funding for telemedicine
Outside of ONC funding, the omnibus bill also maintains funding for the Office for Civil Rights at $38.8 million, which saw an $8 million cut under Trump’s most recent budget proposal.
The package also maintains a longstanding prohibition on using federal funds to create a unique health identifier. Advocacy groups have pushed lawmakers to rescind the ban, arguing that it could help with the ongoing issue of patient matching.
Telemedicine also got a boost, with $82 million in grants reserved for expanding programs, primarily in rural areas. Virtual care will also benefit from $600 million in funding reserved for broadband expansion.