Open letter to CMS and ONC: How to reveal rules and regs to the media

There's a better way to work with us than dropping regulations on Friday at 5
By Tom Sullivan
07:56 AM
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When the Department of Defense unveiled the winner of its enormous EHR modernization contract, the news came closer to breaking the Internet than Kim Kardashian's whatever-that-was on the cover of Paste magazine.

At least it did in certain circles. Here at Healthcare IT News, for instance, the arc of coverage leading up to the announcement and, subsequently, the many stories following the surprise that Cerner, Leidos and Accenture – not Epic and IBM – won is already proving to be among our most-read topics.

Other wildly popular articles with our readership, as I imagine you can speculate, pertain to EHRs, health information exchange, and the meaningful use rules and regulations that emanate from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

I believe I speak on behalf of many healthcare, IT and government journalists in suggesting that you could learn a lot from how the DoD worked with the media in a mutually beneficial capacity.

Let's take a look at the DoD's timeline – strictly from the perspective of media covering the announcement.

First, on Monday July 27, 2015 a spokesperson reached out to a targeted list of reporters, via an email bearing the subject line "EMBARGOED: Press availability on DoD EHR contract award." 

"If you are receiving this email, you have at some point, to some degree, expressed interest in the DoD's Electronic Health Records Modernization Program. As such, you are invited to attend in person or call in to a media availability on Wednesday, July 29 at 9:30 a.m."

That's all it took. We were given the opportunity and those of us who RSVP'd received, first thing Wednesday morning, a dial-in number. The DoD had on the line: Frank Kendall, DoD Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Jonathan Woodson, MD, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, and Chris Miller, Executive Officer for DoD's Healthcare Management Systems Modernization and Integrated Electronic Health Records.

The spokeswoman began by instructing us that the entire conversation – save the one fact that DoD would be making the announcement that day – was embargoed until 5 p.m. est.

Then, just like that, DoD officials outlined the top criteria they demanded before awarding the contract, made the case that reports of interoperability issues with the VA are overblown, and fielded questions from nearly everyone in attendance. What they withheld was exactly who would be awarded the contract. 

The DoD's approach worked on a number of fronts, including: It gave interested media outlets an opportunity to learn about and accurately report on the contract award within minutes of it being published, it provided us with ample background material for several ensuing stories and, perhaps most important to DoD, the news pretty much consumed everything else for the rest of the week in our corner of the Web.  

When is that less likely to happen? Friday at 5. Just like other publications, we cover rules that drop then, sure, but by my calculations the DoD got a lot of mileage out of Healthcare IT News and its readers this way.

I know, I know, $9 billion contracts just don't come around all that often. I've also heard the litany of realities (I'll not call them excuses because I know they're true) from ONC and CMS officials. "We don't write the rules…" is one, "There's no hurrying regulation writers," another and "It has to show up in the Federal Register first." 

But you have managed to lead the digitization of well more than half this nation's healthcare system, so I think that, forgive the pun, a coordinated effort around simple press announcements is within your grasp. The imminent meaningful use regs for 2015/2016 and Stage 3 would make for a great trial run.

One last thing: the Department of Defense did not invent this model, no, it's standard operating procedure in many industries for established stalwarts and nascent startups alike.  

[Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that DoD officials told media who won the contract during the call. They did not. We all had to wait until 5 p.m. to learn that. The above article has been corrected.]