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White House names former HHS exec federal CTO

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President Obama last week appointed Health and Human Services Chief Technology Officer Todd Park to oversee technology innovation across the federal government.

Park will fill the position of federal CTO, left vacant by Aneesh Chopra in January. In his new role, Park will work with federal Deputy CTO for Telecommunications Tom Power to ensure the adoption of innovative technologies that support job creation, access to affordable healthcare, open government and other administration priorities.

“Todd Park has demonstrated a remarkable talent for enlisting innovative technologies to modernize government, reduce waste, and make government information more accessible to the public,” Obama said in a statement. “In his new position he will bring those skills to the entire federal enterprise, ensuring that government will serve all Americans fairly, effectively, and efficiently.”  

Over the past two years, Park’s work at HHS has included the creation of healthcare.gov, a consumer website that lists public and private health insurance plans by zip code and efforts to make HHS health data accessible to the public and app developers.

Park worked on health care strategy, technology and operations as a management consultant at Booz Allen & Hamilton before he co-founded the health IT company Athenahealth in 1997. He was hired as an entrepreneur-in-residence at HHS in August 2009.

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HIT program gets $20 million boost

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The Health and Human Services Department has awarded an additional $20 million to aid critical access and rural hospitals in adopting electronic health records.

The added boost will provide technical support to about 1,655 critical access and rural hospitals in 41 states and the nationwide Indian Country, according to a Sept. 10 news release.

The money will flow through regional extension centers (REC) that were created to help health care providers adopt electronic health records and achieve meaningful use. The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology awarded more than $640 million earlier this year to 60 existing entities that now operate as RECs across the country.

This additional funding will be dispersed to 46 of them thanks to provisions under the Health Information Technology Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act

“Regional Extension Centers are poised to provide the hands-on, field support needed by health care providers to advance the rapid adoption and use of health IT,” said Dr. David Blumenthal,  national coordinator for health information technology, in the release. “The added level of support we are announcing today will enable the RECs to offer greater field support to these communities as they deal with the financial and workforce constraints, and work to achieve access to broadband connectivity and to overcome other barriers that critical access hospitals and other rural hospitals may confront.”

RECs are expected to be self-sustaining by mid-2012, and the goal is to serve at least 100,000 providers that have small practices, or serve the uninsured and underinsured.


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HHS’ Sebelius talks health care

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The Health and Human Services Department will rely on the expertise of current federal employees to implement hundreds of changes mandated in the recently-signed health care law, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said April 6.

“We’re not starting with the assumption that we have to build a new bureaucracy … One of the ways we’ll save money is by depending heavily on people and systems that are already in place.  Our department already has great talent, resources, and knowledge of the health care system,” she said at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C

Sebelius’ speech was billed as a look at how HHS will implement the new health care law, but Sebelius avoided discussing how the agency will mount the largest health care changes since the creation of Medicare in 1965. She spoke mainly platitudes about how the law will help millions of Americans, though she said the agency will be transparent in how it makes changes and administers the law.

Once such example of transparency, she said, is a new Medicare dashboard. The dashboard will allow users to aggregate, search and sort a collection of data on Medicare costs and services, all while protecting patient privacy, she said.

“Today, we’re making available Medicare’s inpatient hospital spending data, which you’ll be able to sort by state, condition, and hospital. But this is just the first step of many we’ll be taking to give consumers, purchasers and providers the health information they need to make smarter choices,” she said.

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Senate confirms surgeon general

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Senators unanimously confirmed Dr. Regina Benjamin Thursday as the next U.S. surgeon general.

Benjamin is the founder of the Bayou Le Batre Rural Health Clinic in Bayou La Batre, Ala., a fishing village, and has served as its chief executive officer since its founding in 1990.

Benjamin has rebuilt the clinic several times, including after Hurricane Georges in 1998 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Atlanta neurosurgeon and CNN correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta was rumored earlier this year to be Obama’s first choice for surgeon general, but Gupta pulled his name from consideration, citing his desire to spend more time on his current work.

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Obama names his pick for surgeon general

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Dr. Regina Benjamin, an Alabama physician, speaks after President Barack Obama announced her nomination for surgeon general.

Dr. Regina Benjamin, an Alabama physician, speaks after President Barack Obama announced her nomination for surgeon general Monday in the Rose Garden. AP photo

Dr. Regina Benjamin, a family practice doctor who works with the rural poor in Alabama, is President Barack Obama’s choice for surgeon general, Obama said Monday.

Obama praised Benjamin’s commitment to health care and to providing access to care for those who can’t afford insurance. She is the founder of the Bayou Le Batre Rural Health Clinic in Bayou La Batre, Ala., a fishing village, and has served as its chief exective officer since is founding in 1990.

Benjamin has rebuilt the clinic several times, including after it sustain heavy damages by Hurricane Georges in 1998 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Benjamin, 52, received her bachelor’s degree in 1979 from Xavier University of Louisiana, attended Morehouse School of Medicine from 1980 to 1982, and earned her doctor of medicine degree in 1984 from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Her medical schooling was paid for by the National Health Service Corps, a federal program where medical students pledge to work in underserved areas in exchange for paid tuition, earning one year of free tuition for ever year of service.

Atlanta neurosurgeon and CNN correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta was rumored earlier this year to be Obama’s first choice for surgeon general, but Gupta pulled his name from consideration, citing his desire to spend more time on his current work.

Benjamin’s nomination is subject to Senate confirmation.

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Congress to approve $7.7 billion for flu

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House and Senate conferees reached an agreement late Thursday on the $105.9 billion war supplemental bill, which includes $7.7 billion to respond to pandemic flu.

The Centers for Disease Control and the Health and Human Services Department will receive $1.5 billion in additional fiscal year 2009 appropriations, as well as $5.8 billion for a contingency fund for expanding detection efforts, increasing federal drug stockpiles and developing and administering vaccines. President Barack Obama had requested $1.5 billion in fiscal year 2009 funds and $2 billion in contingency funds.

In addition, the supplemental provides $350 million to help state and local governments prepare for and respond to a pandemic. It also includes $50 million for global efforts to track and contain the spread of pandemic flu. Obama did not request funding either of those efforts.

The bill now goes back to the chambers for consideration, with leaders stating they’re eager to pass the final bill quickly.

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Obama names new CDC director

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Dr. Thomas Frieden, commissioner of the New York City Health Department, will be the new director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, President Barack Obama announced Friday.

He will replace acting CDC Director Dr. Rich Besser, who will return to his role leading the CDC’s Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response.

Please visit Federal Times for updates on this story.

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Senate confirms Sebelius for HHS

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The Senate voted 65-31 Tuesday evening to confirm Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of Health and Human Services, filling the last vacant Cabinet post in Barack Obama’s administration.

Sebelius will take over the agency as it responds to worldwide panic over swine flu, which has sickened more than 60 in the United States and possibly more than 200 in Mexico. None of HHS’ 18 agencies has political leadership in place, with career employees and temporary leaders steering the agencies.

Sebelius, the Democratic governor of Kansas, faced considerable opposition from Republicans who were displeased with her pro-choice views. They also criticized her failure to timely disclose accepting donations from George Tiller, a prominent Kansas doctor who performs late-term abortions.

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was President Barack Obama’s first choice to lead HHS. He stepped down from consideration in February after revelations that he owed nearly $144,000 in back taxes for use of a car and driver.

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More nominations head to Senate floor

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The Senate could vote this week on more of President Barack Obama’s nominees.

The Senate Homeland Security and Government Reform Committee approved two nominations by voice vote Monday: W. Craig Fugate for Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator and John Morton for assistant secretary of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Senate may vote this week on their nominations, which aren’t controversial. No vote has been scheduled.

Meanwhile, senators are debating the nomination of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius for secretary of Health and Human Services Tuesday, with a vote expected later in the day. The vote on her nomination has been delayed almost three weeks, as some Republicans have taken issue with her pro-choice stance and her acceptance of campaign contributions from a Kansas doctor who performs late-term abortions.

She must receive at least 60 votes for her nomination to pass, part of a compromise reached by Senate Democrats and Republicans late last week. She’s expected to have the needed number of votes, but not by much.

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WH defends swine flu response

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Not having a secretary of Health and Human Services isn’t hurting the federal response to the swine flu outbreak, said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs Monday.

“Our response is in no way hindered or hampered by not having a permanent secretary at HHS right now,” Gibbs said after a reporter asked how the agency is faring.

Gibbs said he hopes the Senate will act quickly to confirm Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, the nominee for HHS secretary. The Senate has scheduled debate on her nomination for Tuesday with a vote possibly later in the day.

Gibbs said interagency coordination for flu outbreaks and other public health issues is entrusted to the Homeland Security Department, headed by Janet Napolitano.

Gibbs credits the career staff at HHS agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control, for helping with the response to swine flu, which has sickened more than 40 in the United States and more than 26 in Mexico.

“There are professional staff over there as we speak helping to coordinate this. I’m sure many of you all have called public affairs over there and gotten your questions answered … we feel confident with the team that is there now,” he said.

Meanwhile, Congress has already scheduled oversight hearings on swine flu and the federal response. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has scheduled a 10 a.m. Wednesday hearing, while the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health has a 10 a.m. Thursday hearing.

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