National Health IT Chief Dr. David Blumenthal to Step Down

The man behind the government's electronic health record initiatives, Dr. David Blumenthal, will end his two-year tenure as national health care IT coordinator.

National health care IT leader Dr. David Blumenthal announced Feb. 3 that he will step down from his post this spring to return to his career as a professor of medicine and health care policy at Harvard University.

President Barack Obama appointed Blumenthal as the national coordinator for health information technology in March 2009. Congress passed the HITECH (Health Information Technology Economic and Clinical Health) Act of 2009 the month before. Blumenthal helped nudge the health care industry toward adopting EHRs (electronic health records) and satisfying the government's meaningful-use requirements.

"HITECH gave ONC a major role in assisting health professionals and institutions to make these critical changes in the way care is delivered, and we have begun this work in earnest," Blumenthal wrote in a memo to the staff of the ONC (Office of the National Coordinator) of Health Information Technology, obtained by Health Care IT News.

Under his watch, Obama's administration pledged to award up to $27 billion in incentives for health care companies implementing EHRs, beginning last month. The allotment is now under fire in Congress, however.

"David will leave his post having built a strong foundation, created real momentum for HIT [health IT] adoption, charted a course for the meaningful use of EHRs, and launched a new phase of cooperative and supportive work with the health care community, states and cities across the nation," Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote in a memo to Health and Human Service senior leadership and ONC staff.

From the time he took the ONC post, he had planned to return to Harvard this spring, Blumenthal wrote.

Word of Blumenthal's impending departure came a day after he announced Direct Project pilot HIEs (health-information exchanges) for Minnesota and Rhode Island. The Direct Project is a government initiative to make HIEs accessible for health care professionals nationwide.

The Direct Project announcement marked a natural time for Blumenthal to step aside, suggested Gartner analyst Wes Rishel.

"It was fitting that Dr. Blumenthal announced his departure the day after a press conference announcing that the Direct Project had gone into live production," Rishel wrote in an e-mail to eWEEK. "Remarkable speed, transparency and leadership without being dictatorial have been the hallmarks of the ONC under his leadership," he added.

During his time at the ONC, the agency started 84 community college programs to provide health care IT training for clinicians. The ONC also set up the Beacon program to help communities establish HIEs for sharing health records. Recently 17 communities received Beacon status, including the Greater Tulsa Health Access Network.

With Blumenthal leaving and Republicans in Congress anxious to repeal the Obama administration's national health program, it remains to be seen what will come of the meaningful-use guidelines and the push for EHRs.

"I think the health IT industry would like to see the meaningful-use requirements, rules and definitions progress and be finalized more quickly, and the change in leadership could result in either a slowdown or additional momentum, depending on who is the replacement and how quickly they are put in place," Judy Hanover, an analyst for IDC, told eWEEK in an e-mail. "It would be disappointing if momentum was lost in the transition."