ONC chiefs compare notes on past decade

'The idea that we would get this opportunity was so unbelievable — literally unbelievable — and when the HITECH Act passed, it was a broad movement.'

David Brailer, MD tracks the bipartisan nature of health IT back to a single night.

When President George W. Bush was running for reelection in 2004, John Kerry’s campaign struck Bush with criticisms about healthcare, and Bush's people called Brailer for some talking points.

[See also: 10 portraits of IT newsmakers]

"I'm sorry David Blumenthal isn't here because he was advising (ONC) but he was also advising Kerry when he ran against Bush," Brailer said at at gathering of four former national coordinators at HIMSS14 on Wednesday. "We spent the entire night trying to get two teams to back off of each other. We both agreed the next morning we made health IT bipartisan," by keeping it out of the election campaigns. "I don't think I’ve ever told that story."

That bipartisanship was also striking to Robert Kolodner, MD. During his tenure at ONC, the office was "able to take the first step of making certain" it could get the pieces that were needed to advance IT, he said. "We didn't want anyone to grab and control the core infrastructure. It was important to bring it in the room so that the solution didn't favor one interest or the other."

And then came the HITECH Act, which was passed as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 during Blumenthal's term, while future ONC chief Farzad Mostashari, MD, served as deputy national coordinator.

"It took an economic crash to create the opening for something that the groundwork had been laid for," Mostashari said. "The idea that we would get this opportunity was so unbelievable — literally unbelievable — and when the HITECH Act passed, it was a broad movement."

[See also: Decades of health IT progress]

As "exhilarating" as that time was, Mostashari said the low point was clear: the government shutdown in the fall of 2013 — a time in which ONC was gutted down to four employees and the office’s essentialness was called into question.

Brailer's low point was perhaps equally disconcerting" ONC's budget got temporarily slashed all the way down to zero and then he was "realizing that there was no political support for this."

Kolodner said he had to perform a political balancing act. "There were times we were accused of being controlled by one side or the other," he said.

Current national coordinator Karen DeSalvo, MD, is just seven weeks into the post.

"I don't have a low point yet," DeSalvo said. But her high point was the first HIT Policy committee meeting where she was greeted with a whole host of opinions. "I got very excited about that because this is a community of vendors, purchasers, providers, policy folks, who really … want to get it right."