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Blumenthal Spearheads Health IT Reform

Les Masterson, for HealthLeaders Media, March 23, 2009

In naming David Blumenthal, MD, MPP, as his national coordinator for health information technology, President Barack Obama has selected someone with healthcare and policy experience to lead the nearly $20 billion healthcare information technology effort.

Blumenthal, a Harvard Medical School graduate and professor, is an internist and expert in health policy and healthcare delivery systems. He has a lengthy resume in healthcare, including founding director of Partners HealthCare System's Institute for Health Policy (IHP) that "conducts research to support quality and efficiency improvement within Partners HealthCare, to inform and influence health policy on the national level, and more broadly, to improve health and healthcare across America and in other nations worldwide," according to its Web site.

In addition to Blumenthal's work in healthcare, he has served in the political realm as a staff member on Sen. Edward Kennedy's Senate Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research, served on the White House Health Professional Advisory Group during the Clinton administration, and was a senior health advisor for President Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

Blumenthal's appointment comes a week after HHS created the Office of Recovery Act Coordination, which will oversee the distribution of about $137 billion in stimulus funds. Of the $19 billion in health IT funds Blumenthal will handle, about $17 billion of that sum is slated for incentive payments through Medicare and Medicaid for providers who adopt electronic health records.

In a statement announcing the appointment, Jenny Backus, spokeswoman for HSS, said Blumenthal "has the experience and the vision to help" reform healthcare and is "uniquely qualified" as a practicing physician and leading scholar on health IT. "Dr. Blumenthal shares President Obama's commitment to investing in a health IT infrastructure that will protect patient privacy, and improve both quality and efficiency in our nation's health system."

Blumenthal has already created a blueprint for how the federal government should push for widespread use of interoperable health IT systems. He wrote an article for The Commonwealth Fund in January that suggests four ways the federal government can spark health IT adoption:

  • Stimulate adoption of electronic health records
  • Stimulate interoperability
  • Create incentives to use electronic health records (EHR) to improve quality and efficiency
  • Stimulate technical progress

With his new position, Blumenthal will need to work on those four areas—and he won't have time to ease into the role. According to the stimulus bill, standards and specifications for the health IT portion of the bill are expected by the end of this year. In the standards, the feds will have to define "certified" EHR products and how physician practices can meet the legislation's "meaningful use" requirement. Practices that meet that requirement are eligible for Medicare and Medicaid incentives starting in 2011.

In addition to his health IT work, Blumenthal has investigated healthcare reform in a historical context. He and his co-author James Morone wrote a book called "The Heart of Power: Health and Politics in the Oval Office" scheduled for release in June that examines the role presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt have taken in addressing healthcare reform. As part of their research, the authors analyzed President Lyndon Johnson's taped Oval Office conversations and other archival materials concerning the Medicare and Medicaid legislation. They found that the president played a larger role in getting the landmark legislation passed than previously believed by historians.

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