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By Alex Ruoff
National Coordinator for Health Information Technology Farzad Mostashari announced Aug. 6 he will step down from his position sometime this fall.
In an email announcement to his staff Mostashari said he does not have immediate plans for the future, but told them, “I will be by your side as we continue to battle for health care transformation, cheering you on.”
Industry association representatives told BNA that Mostashari is best known as a patient advocate and a technical expert and will step down as major changes are expected for health care and ONC's most prominent initiative, the “meaningful use” program. This fall will bring the launch of federal and state insurance exchanges as well as the next stage of the meaningful use program.
A spokesman for the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology told BNA a successor has not yet been named. Mostashari did not provide a reason for his departure in his email.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, in a separate email to HHS staff, called Mostashari “a leader” and “an important advisor to me and many of us across the department.”
“During his tenure, ONC has been at the forefront of designing and implementing a number of initiatives to promote the adoption of health IT among health care providers,” Sebelius said. “This critical work has not only brought about important improvements in the business of health care, but also has helped providers better coordinate care, which can improve patients' health while saving money at the same time.”
The national coordinator for health IT is head of ONC and is charged with coordinating nationwide efforts to implement and use advanced health IT and the electronic exchange of health information between health care providers.
While an exact date for his departure has not yet been set, Mostashari is expected to step down from his post as Stage 2 of the meaningful use program, an initiative that was the focus of his tenure, begins for hospitals. Registration for Stage 2 of the meaningful use program, which offers Medicare and Medicaid incentive payments to adopt electronic health records, begins for hospitals in October and health care providers in January 2014.
The meaningful use program has been praised by HHS officials for increasing the use of EHR systems by clinicians nationwide. However, Mostashari has been called upon by lawmakers three times this year to defend the progress of the now three-year-old program (see previous article).
Critics of the meaningful use program say it has not done enough to make EHR systems useful for health care providers while industry executives have warned that many will be unprepared for Stage 2 when it begins (see previous article).
Mostashari's departure also will occur when federal and state health insurance exchanges, a key part of the Affordable Care Act, are slated to launch.
Both the future success of the meaningful use program and ACA will rely on the effectiveness of the health IT tools used by health care providers and hospitals, Joel White, executive director for the Health IT Now Coalition, a collection of patient and physician advocacy groups, told BNA.
The next coordinator for health IT will need to help evolve the meaningful use program from encouraging the adoption of health IT tools, such as EHRs, to making health IT systems more interoperable--capable of electronically exchanging data--to allow for better care coordination among clinicians, White said.
“You need a visionary to connect the dots between the technical issues, the policy issues, the care coordination issues, and what Congress is doing,” White said. “You need someone to get past the deficiencies of the meaningful use program and get [health care] providers excited by the technology.”
Mostashari, in the email to his staff, predicted that the meaningful use program will make a significant impact on the health care industry in coming months. He said the next year will bring “a great democratization of health information as individuals become empowered to download their own health information, and venture capital investment in new tools to help us manage our own health and health care are skyrocketing.”
Several industry representatives praised Mostashari as an effective convener of technical experts and innovators.
Debra L. Ness, president of the consumer advocacy group National Partnership for Women & Families, in a release called Mostashari a “visionary, innovative leader who has done a tremendous amount to put our nation on a path to health care that is coordinated, efficient and patient- and family-centered.”
“His history of collaborating with all stakeholders is impressive, and his actions have helped ensure that consumers get the return they deserve for their investment in health IT,” she said.
Christine Bechtel, an advisor to the partnership and a member of ONC's Health IT Policy Committee, said the next national coordinator for health IT “will take over at a critical time” as ONC finalizes recommendations for requirements for Stage 3 of the meaningful use program, set for formal rulemaking in 2014.
John Halamka, chief information officer at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center as well as co-chair of ONC's Health IT Standards Committee, told BNA in an email that working with Mostashari was “an extraordinary experience” and praised his work creating technical standards for health IT tools.
Halamka pointed to the expansion of the Direct Project, a secure messaging service for health care providers, as evidence of Mostashari's success as national coordinator.
While the announcement of Mostashari's departure came unexpectedly, none of the four national coordinators have retained the position for longer than three years, Tom Leary, vice president for government relations at the health care information and management systems society, a health IT industry representative, told BNA.
“There is a precedent of moving on … but I was not expecting it to come today,” Leary said. “He's got a lot of passion for health IT and I don't think we've heard the last from Dr. Mostashari.”
Mostashari was promoted from deputy national coordinator to national coordinator for health IT in April 2011, replacing David Blumenthal, who is now president of The Commonwealth Fund, a health research group. Blumenthal was national coordinator for health IT between 2009 and 2011.
Prior to Blumenthal, Robert Kolodner was national coordinator for health IT between 2007 and 2009. Kolodner went on to found Collaborative Transformations, a health IT consulting group.
Before joining ONC, Mostashari was the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene assistant commissioner for the Primary Care Information Project, an effort to promote the use of health IT by health care providers in New York City.
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