Blumenthal’s Departure: Odd Timing

Yesterday morning, in a podcast interview with Neil Versel, a respected HIT journalist, I was asked to compare the mood at last year’s HIMSS meeting with my expectations for this year’s assembly. In 2010, I listened as David Blumenthal, head of ONC, spoke to a standing-room-only crowd, whipping up a frenzy of excitement about ARRA and its EHR incentives in what I can only describe as a pep rally. I told Neil that I anticipate a more subdued and somewhat anxious atmosphere at this year’s meeting, since the practical realities and challenges associated with the complexities of meaningful use have set in. A recent survey of hospital CIOs, for example, revealed reduced confidence in the ability of their respective institutions to successfully meet the requirements within the allotted timeframes, and a resulting skepticism about whether they would earn the incentives. Similarly, at the recent 2-day hearings conducted by the Adoption and Certification Workgroup, the generally positive sentiment was tempered by concerns about operational issues, timing, IT workforce challenges, and the multitude of government programs on the plates of practices.

Then, yesterday afternoon, the news broke that David Blumenthal is stepping down from his post as the national leader of the EHR adoption and incentives program. Although we all know that no single individual is ever indispensible, the timing of his departure struck me as quite odd. The program is at the precipice—its launch is just underway and the first attestations of meaningful use are expected in April. Initial success or failure will be evidenced imminently. One would think that this would be the time to demonstrate stability and unwavering commitment from the top down—a time to rally all of the forces to ensure the program’s success.

I cannot help wondering the following:

  • Why is Blumenthal stepping down now, when the program is at such a critical juncture?
  • Why is HHS Secretary Sebelius just now “conducting a national search for the right successor” even though she reports that it was always the plan that Dr. Blumenthal would end his term at this point?
  • What are the implications for the EHR incentives program?
  • Will his departure affect the likelihood of its success?
  • How will provider confidence in the program be impacted?
  • Should we expect changes in the program? What kind of changes?

Please share your thoughts on David Blumenthal’s departure by commenting below.

Just What the Doctor Ordered

The government is hearing the voice of the specialists.

Since the inception of the EHR incentive program in February 2009, specialists have been concerned about their role in a program that is clearly focused on primary care. As I have pointed out before, the legislation’s primary-care focus is borne out by the composition of the decision-making committees, the allocation of funding for associated programs, and the fact that specialists were not even a topic of conversation in the deliberations until late in the game.

I have tried to advocate for the physicians—specialists, in particular—by representing their special issues via the Voice of the Physician Petition, blog postings, letters to Dr. Blumenthal and Secretary Sebelius, and by sending staff to Washington to speak on their behalf. In the last few months, specialists, their medical societies, and industry pundits such as David Kibbe and Vince Kuraitis have speculated that many specialists will not participate in the program.

Apparently, the government is worried and is taking steps to reach out to specialists to assuage their concerns. Last week, David Blumenthal confirmed publicly that specialists will not be expected to add primary-care clinical workflows to their practices to satisfactorily demonstrate meaningful use, and that they can exclude select measures that don’t apply to their practices. (See my HIStalk Practice post for more information.) While nothing in the regulations has changed since the release of the final rule in July, Dr. Blumenthal’s recent statements should dispel physicians’ initial skepticism about the potential exclusions—skepticism that had roots in disappointing PQRI experiences.

Having heard Dr. Blumenthal speak before an audience of ophthalmologists at the recent AAO meeting, I find it refreshing to see a move to a more inclusive program.