Farzad Mostashari, policy panel takes critical look at CommonWell

'The question to ask is, will it work, will it help move us forward?'
By Diana Manos
12:00 AM
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At a meeting of the Health IT Policy Committee on April 3, National Coordinator for Health Information Technology Farzad Mostashari, MD, and other committee members took a hard look at the CommonWell Health Alliance, a new vendor-led coalition to promote interoperability.
McKesson, Cerner, Allscripts, Greenway and athenahealth, along with RelayHealth, McKesson's connectivity business, announced the alliance at the 2013 HIMSS Annual Conference & Exhibition in New Orleans. Leaders of the nonprofit group say its aim is to make the exchange of data easier, but Mostashari and some members of the Health IT Policy Committee questioned whether the alliance might make things worse.
The debate over the new organization followed an extensive report delivered at the meeting, in which some members of the committee said they were confused over what CommonWell has to offer. Did the alliance intend to replace HIEs? How would data exchange work? What are the goals?
Software entrepreneur Paul Egerman, co-chair of the policy panel and one of two members to deliver the report, said the CommonWell alliance is "a nationwide endeavor; an example for the nation." Egerman, who based his report on briefings with alliance members, said the group aims to "solve" the nationwide data exchange problem.
Charles Kennedy, CEO, Accountable Care Solutions for Aetna and co-presenter of the report, said although the group defends its altruistic purposes, he has his doubts, and wonders why competitors would want to cooperate. He conceded, however, that his sense from the group's founders was that they want to level the playing field for all vendors.
Panel member Judy Faulkner, founder and CEO of Epic Systems, said she felt excluded from the organization at the HIMSS Conference, where it was announced. "We were scolded for not being part of this group, and yet we weren’t invited," she told fellow panel members.
For his part, McKesson CEO John Hammergren told Healthcare IT News in March he was "hopeful" that Epic "will see it the same way we see it" and sign on with CommonWell.
He added that "the only reason they weren't at the table," at the alliance's initial announcement "is that we needed speed to get the deal done, and I don't think anyone [at McKesson and Cerner] had as close a working relationship, perhaps, with Epic as we do with this group," referring to Allscripts, Greenway and athenahealth.
Hammergren said he planned to spend the coming months "engaged in trying to recruit more companies into the alliance," in hopes that "every day we'll have a more ubiquitous group of people saying, "This makes sense for us, and we want to participate."
On the surface, Faulkner said, CommonWell appears to be a business. "We do know it’s expensive to participate," she added. Faulkner also questioned whether the group would favor the founding companies and whether it planned to sell de-identified data.
Speaking at the press conference announcing CommonWell's launch, Cerner CEO Neal Patterson said, "It's time for vendors, even as they continue to compete in the marketplace, to break down their data silos." He added that progress on the data liquidity front would have to come from the private sector: "Our government is not going to deal with this problem.
Egerman said he'd heard some concerns expressed that vendors may be using the organization to "go nationwide." And there are questions over whether the vendors will require users to go through the CommonWell Health Alliance, rather than through a regional health information exchange, he said. “I can’t project what a vendor will do," Egerman said.
Mostashari said the key question is whether the service is severable, or if it’s an exclusive network. If it’s an optional service that rides on top of a regional exchange, it could be useful, he said.
"The question to ask is, will it work. Will it help move us forward?" Mostashari said. "Many efforts have tried to be 'the' network,” he added, but it can’t come at the price of inhibiting other good activities.